by dutch simmons
Beggars can’t be choosers. They don’t throw jobs at ex-cons. Excuse me. A justice impaired individual. I didn’t give a shit what they called me. I just needed to keep my probation officer off my back. Anything that showed I was contributing to society. Rehabilitated.
I promised my son I’d be a changed man when I got out. Through swollen eyes full of doubt, I could see he was tired of the empty refrain. During my time away I had become the creepy old guy. Too old to be selling coke in the clubs. I was a hulking dinosaur hawking glassine bags filled with powder with my tiny T- Rex arms. Even I was embarrassed to be myself.
Now I’m legit. I clean ashtrays and clip cigars like I’m giving circumcisions to flaccid, wheezing middle-aged men in a suburban cigar lounge. Masters of the universe who can’t get an erection without a pill. I’m allowed to handle the cash register, but still haven’t been given the keys to lock up. The owner comes back at night to do “inventory.” Like I’m gonna bolt with the $80 bucks the place might make.
He reminds me that he’s doing me the favor. In theory, I could become an assistant manager. He just needs me here long enough to get a tax break for hiring a felon.
It’s a fresh start. In a place that smells like the inside of the Holland Tunnel. Cheap bastard never paid for proper ventilation. I’m bathed in a putrid, heavy gray yellow haze. I’m choking every minute I’m here. Choking on my own goddamn freedom.
The rules are simple:
Keep the place neat.
Keep the guests happy.
Don’t fuck with the typewriter.
Not even don’t steal. He knows I’ve been neutered. One more strike and I’m gone for good.
He bought the typewriter at auction. Supposedly it belonged to Hemingway. The owner spent more money on that fucking typewriter than on the ventilation system. The typewriter was used in a Fuente’s Hemingway cigar display. “Papa” didn’t like cigars. It was part of the Hemingway myth. The owner tried to grow a beard and look like Hemingway. A torturous puberty left craggy mountain ranges in his jawline. Patchy tuffets grew like a cotton field that had been arbitrarily ripped out.
He was afraid I would steal the typewriter. Sell it on the black market. Like I was Thomas Fucking Crown. I sold coke to trust-fund kids and the same lords of the lounge whose ashes I swept up with a forced smile through hacking breaths.
Cuckolds whose wives wouldn’t let them smoke at home came here. The few that came in barely spoke to each other. They brought their own cigars, despite the owner’s exhortations to buy from the store.
The lounge closed at nine. I’d clean up and then the owner arrived shortly thereafter. For inventory. Lights out at ten. Just like prison. Guards made their rounds, made sure nothing was out of place, then lights out. I was out, but never really left. Nothing changed.
The last guest was a Czech who escaped the Prague Spring of ‘68 and told anybody who would listen. Nobody did. I checked to make sure he didn’t doze off and light himself on fire with his own cigar. With nobody to talk to, he’s left early. I learned to appear busy when he talked; the dollar tip wasn’t worth the effort.
I embrace the silence. In prison, men yell. Sharp, staccato outbursts. Here I can hear myself talk, even if I don’t like what I say.
I didn’t hear the door open initially. The owner was early. The click of the barrel slide was unmistakable. Heavy. I could taste the metal of the gun through the acrid air. I let him get too close. Every rule from prison, forgotten. Out three months and I’m soft.
“The fucking register.” High pitched and manic. I turned to see a skeleton with dead eyes. Snot ran down skin so taut I thought it would crack if he said anything else. A fucking junkie.
I could take him if I wanted. Or he could put me out of my misery. For $36 in the register. His hands trembled as he pawed at the crumpled bills. Maybe he’d shoot me on principle. I don’t blame him. He was incredulous. Blinking.
“Take the typewriter.”
He looked at me uncomprehending. He grabbed a fistful of cigars; there was nothing else of value in the store.
“Take the fucking typewriter!”
“Gimme your phone!”
I had a flip phone. Probation, said I hadn’t earned the privilege yet. I tossed it to him.
“What the fuck is this?”
He held it like a used condom. I laughed derisively. I could still eat a bullet and call it a night. He staggered backwards to the front door, spitting on the floor in disgust.
I knocked the typewriter onto the floor. Shattered. Ivory keys danced among piles of ashes.
Fuck it. I’ll find another job.
I lit up a cigar and waited for the owner to arrive.
Dutch Simmons established and taught a creative writing program for his fellow inmates while incarcerated. He won the Secret Attic Flash Fiction Contest and was a finalist for the Texas Observer Short Fiction Award, and New Millenium Flash Fiction Prize. He is a fantastic father, a former felon, and a Phoenix rising!