On his way to the liquor store, Connor Lick rubbed his bald head and felt for ingrown hairs. He almost never shaved more than once a day for fear of nicking his tender skin. Because, of course, a head riddled with nicks usually led to a scalp decorated with toilet paper. And, as everyone knows, a scalp decorated with toilet paper always led to glares from the otherwise indifferent women on the bus.
The reason for this break from his routine was dinner at Cynthia and Greg’s. After all, it was a formal dinner ー with people, adults. He needed to look his best. He needed to be memorable.
An invitation to an actual dinner party was something he’d imagined would’ve materialized long before the age of twenty-six. And it was certainly a stark contrast to what’d become his evening routine since moving to the city just a few months earlier:
- riding the stationary bike for no less than twenty minutes
- masturbating in the shower for no more than ten minutes
- eating an oversized bowl of sauceless pasta for no more than fifteen minutes
- drinking one tall can of domestic beer while passively watching basketball for no more than two hours
- masturbating in bed for no more than twenty-five minutes
Long before he knew Cynthia and Greg, long before he’d been offered his job, long before he’d known much of anything at all, his high school guidance counselor had told him that pursuing a business degree would be an extended networking event. “The most important thing,” she’d said, “is to make a lasting impression.” And, so, when his hair began falling out in clumps in the showers of his freshman dorm, he decided to turn it into an opportunity. He would not shave what remained. He would certainly not invest in a wig. He would simply allow nature to take its course. People might laugh, but they’d remember him. It’d be a “power move,” even if Connor, or any member of the Lick family for that matter, had never actually used the phrase “power move” out loud before.
Every day, more clumps accumulated in the shower. After a month, all that was left on Connor’s head was an oily brown horseshoe. The frat guys in his Finance class laughed at it, called him Uncle Lick and The Old Man and Bald Fuck, but they were easy to ignore ー morons and bottom-feeders, all destined to spend their lives in two-bit sales jobs hocking light bulbs or handrails. So what did he care?
The revolution lasted until sophomore year, when his Macroeconomics professor asked about it during office hours.
“It’s a statement,” Connor told him.
The professor grinned, and Connor tried to determine if he was mentoring or mocking. He was a tall man who wore three-piece suits to every class and lectured in a deep, monotonous baritone. Despite being in his late sixties, he had a glowing blonde ponytail that slid down the back of his suit jacket. Connor was convinced it was fake ー it had to be. During class he’d study the professor’s hair, trying to find some proof that it was actually a wig. There in his office, close enough to grab a golden lock for himself, Connor finally knew that it wasn’t.
“With all due respect, Mr. Lick,” the professor said, gesturing to his remaining hair, “no one sees it that way.”
The next morning Connor shaved his head. As he examined his tender skin in the mirror, he wondered if the professor would’ve sounded as convincing if he were bald.
Connor entered the store and consciously tried to stop touching his scalp. He reminded himself that doing so only drew attention to what he lacked. What he really needed to emphasize were all the gifts and talents that he possessed. He couldn’t remember where he’d heard that ー had it been Albert, the overbearing but in the end truly inspiring personal trainer from the Planet Fitness in his hometown? Or maybe it’d been his mother, something she’d told him after he said he’d rather stay home than spend prom at the stag table? Or was it that same un-bald professor, the one who’d written the reference for the M.B.A. and practically guaranteed him his current well-paying and impressive job, the one who arguably changed the course of his life, but whose name now escaped him?
It was all unimportant, he told himself. He wondered for a second if that, too, had been something he’d heard before, but quickly silenced it. Of course not all of it was unimportant. Only lunatics had those thoughts ー nihilists or anarchists or nihilistic anarchists. The present moment, that’s what was important. Buying a bottle of wine, that’s what was important.
When he’d asked what he could bring to dinner, Cynthia asked him for “a good bottle of wine.” She quickly corrected herself. “Good, but, you know, nothing too fancy.” And then, a broad smile, as if her correction had been helpful.
He trusted Cynthia and appreciated that she’d gone out of her way to make him feel welcome at a new job in a new city, even going so far as to invite him over for a home-cooked meal with her down-to-earth and all-around lovable husband slash potential big-brother type Greg. Still, Connor couldn’t help feeling like he was being tested. “Nothing too fancy” implied a bottle with class, but not too much. It implied that he knew enough about wine to tell the difference. It implied that she trusted his judgment, which was the most unnerving part.
Not that he had any reason to believe Cynthia was out to make him look foolish. She’d invited him to a gathering of her actual friends, after all. “All good people,” she said, which meant that he was also “good people.” At least, he was pretty sure. There was a real possibility.
The enormity of the wine aisle felt like a joke: shelves stocked with ornamented glass bottles advertising the names of families he’d never know from places he’d never visit. He arbitrarily chose red over white, then settled on a Spanish bottle for no reason other than the fact that he’d earned an A- in Spanish for Business Majors.
The woman at the check-out admired his selection before scanning it. “Fancy.”
“Yeah? Too fancy or…?”
“All wine’s fancy. But, see now, look at this,” she said, pointing to the label. “Overseas. Classy, but nothing that breaks the bank. Smart.” As she spoke, Connor noticed her hot pink braces. He couldn’t help but stare at the way they contrasted her teeth, yellowed from decades of cheap cigarettes. She passed him the bottle with one hand and used the other to straighten her bangs, which hung over her forehead like the bleached brim of a baseball cap. “It’s your lucky day,” she said with a smile. “Free bottle.”
Connor didn’t know that he’d ever won a contest before, though he could recall several times he’d been the butt of elaborate pranks. “Why?”
“What do you mean ‘why?’ Free booze. Who asks ‘why’?”
“Is it a giveaway?”
“Yeah, exactly. I’m giving it away to you.” She held the bottle by the neck and swirled it around in the air. “She’s aaaaall yours.”
“Well, thank you,” he said, finding her name tag. “Darren?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said, remembering. “That’s just a joke.” Connor remained silent, waiting for an explanation, but Darren had moved on. “Can I ask you a favor?”
“I’m in a bit of a rush.”
“I just gave you some free fancy-ass European stock and you’re not even going to hear me out?”
“I can pay for the bottle.”
“Listen, sir, it’s urgent.” She paused and looked around the store, as if to make sure no one could hear, even though every aisle was empty. “I really gotta piss.”
Connor felt his cheeks run hot. He’d never considered “piss” a dirty word, but there was something impure about hearing it out loud like that ー in public, from a stranger ー even if she had just saved him ten to twenty dollars not including tax.
“Sorry? Listen, I’m sorry,” she said. “I think all the piss is affecting my better judgment, if you get me.”
He didn’t, but he nodded along and resisted the urge to rub his head.
“I just need you to cover the register while I run to the bathroom. Five seconds. That’s all. I’m dying here.”
“I’m supposed to meet my friends for dinner.”
“I told you it’ll take five seconds. Five seconds for a story that’ll kill at dinner.”
He studied Darren, looking at her with a new intensity, determined to capture every bizarre detail so he could report it dutifully for Cynthia, and Greg, and their intimidatingly urbane but nonetheless welcoming couple-friends. He imagined the set-up: a late entrance, maybe even a beleaguered shortness of breath, an exasperated look in his eyes, something along the lines of “You won’t believe the night I’ve had,” but, you know, more original, something that Cynthia would eventually call “Classic Connor.” He could see the party listening, and laughing, and sipping the Spanish wine, which (how did he know?) just happened to be a perfect pairing for the food.
“I’m the only one on shift today. Only one here today, I mean. Ty was on shift but of course he no-showed. Guess you can afford that if you’re the branch manager’s cousin. So that leaves me here, working a-lone, holding in three Wild Cherry Pepsis wortha piss.” Darren’s aggression grew with every clause, accenting those final syllables like they were reminders of something Connor had done wrong. He had flashes of playground arguments, of being taunted with names he’d intentionally forgotten, of being shoved in the collarbone by someone with far more determination.
Before he could say no, she stepped out from the register and placed her lanyard around his neck. “Now you’re Darren,” she said.
Connor knew that he could remove it. Though, he was still comfortably early. Even if she took longer than five seconds, even if she took longer than five minutes, it’d be worth the story.
It was not a big deal, he told himself. It was the kind of magically random interaction that only happened in cities, the sort of thing that people from the suburbs would never understand, the sort of thing that would horrify them, that would bring up all sorts of questions about legality and liability and insurance premiums, but was just the sort of thing that you understood if you lived in the city, like Connor did.
“And if someone comes in? What if someone wants to check out?” he asked, stepping behind the register.
“You’ll figure it out,” Darren said, picking up her pace as she approached a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. “It’s simple, really,” she said. And then she was gone.
Connor imagined himself as a camera lens recording every detail of the liquor store, every scummy tile on the floor, every plastic bottle of whiskey emblazoned with some fictional southerner’s name. He wanted his story to be more than an outline. He wanted everyone at dinner to feel like they’d been there with him all along. He wanted the kind of story that Cynthia would ask him to tell at happy hour years later, that new hires would hear about during orientation. One that would, inevitably, be known as “Connor’s famous wine story.”
They’d have follow-up questions. Didn’t you think you were being used? Didn’t you think she’d left, gone home? Didn’t you think she was in the bathroom shooting up or smoking up or whatever they do? Although, maybe it’d be more direct. Why didn’t you leave? He didn’t owe the place anything. He didn’t owe Darren much beyond the bottle’s sticker price, which he could easily leave behind along with a hefty tip. Yet he suddenly felt an obligation to his appointed position, as if he’d just received a promotion after years of stocking the shelves. “I just like helping people,” he’d tell the party. He wondered if that was too perfect.
He kept waiting for the EMPLOYEES ONLY door to swing open and for Darren to start with a loud apology, an adjustment of her bleached bangs, and a long winded, mostly-untrue explanation for why he’d had to wait so long. He expected some kind of honorable status in return ー a complimentary bottle of wine every week, maybe, or at least a hefty book of coupons.
If anyone else had been there, they would’ve assumed that Connor was diligently surveying the store to see that the shelves were properly stocked, that all promotional signs were clearly displayed, that there hadn’t been any white wine leakage from one of the many cheap boxes in aisle ten. But he was not there; he was at the head of a long, oak table, holding court with a roomful of faces he couldn’t quite place but whom he knew were now dear friends. The story had killed: it’d been the topic of conversation for the majority of the dinner, with Greg’s college roommate asking Connor to do his impression of Darren close to seven times before dessert. Every time, he saw Cynthia laughing to the point of tears when he leaned on the word piss.
At the end of the night he’d help wash dishes and open one more bottle of wine for her and Greg, who drunkenly but sincerely (he knew that it was, he could see it in their eyes) would tell him how happy they were that he had moved to the city.
There was a brief flash of worst-case scenarios: slip-and-fall, overdose, suicide. Connor tried to shake these by focusing on his memory of Darren’s face, the one that was alive, the one that wasn’t at all self-conscious about her adult braces and her pre-teen hair, the one that had offered him a free bottle of wine. He would allow her ten more minutes, twenty at most. Anything beyond that was unreasonable. No one could fault him for leaving. He had somewhere to be.
Kevin M. Kearney’s writing has appeared in Hobart, Qu Literary Magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse and elsewhere. He’s a fiction editor at Rejection Letters and a staff writer for PopMatters. He lives and teaches in Philadelphia. More of his work can be found at kevinmkearney.com
image: Amee Nassrene Broumand