“What do you want?” Not only are there countless ways to answer the question, there are many ways to interpret it.
The guy at the front of the line, for instance. Wilted tie, short sleeve shirt, worn out tires and chassis. Long on overtime hours, on dreams, short on manners. He takes the question as a personal affront. He resents it, resents that he is here with the rest of us on Friday evening at the Seven Eleven convenience store. Each of us here to throw down a few bucks and walk out with our Golden Ticket. The lucky jackpot. We are believers. The stars will align, the right numbers will magically appear as we scratch frantically to reveal them, and we will get out of our dead-end jobs and into our dream lives. Maybe we will get a full tank of gas, too, confident that come Monday we will be headed to a different destination than the one we always dread. Maybe no fill-up, though, we will buy a brand-new car if we win big. When we win big.
Seven Eleven is always open, but its name represents their original hours, seven a.m. to eleven p.m., seven days a week. The workers I usually see here seem to work double that. If anyone should be buying the lottery tickets, its them, I think. Maybe they did, and they won; I don’t remember ever seeing the man working the register here before.
Mr. Middle Management had been leaning heavily against the polished counter, right between the jerky sticks and the tiny bottles of energy drinks. He straightened up with defiance when addressed by the convenience store worker. “What do you want?” The voice was warm, sounded a lot like Morgan Freeman, though that was where the resemblance ended. Oddly, people often tell me that I look just like the actor, though he is two decades my senior. “What do YOU want?” the sweaty man with the cornflower tie snapped back. “Maybe this isn’t the job for you if you don’t like interruptions!” “I enjoy my job,” the white-haired man replied in his calm and kind voice. He turned to the shiny foil rolls of scratch off tickets and nodded slightly, eyebrow raised. Of course, there was no apology when the rude man realized his misunderstanding. “Gimme three of the ‘Joker’s Wild,’ a ‘Triple 777’, and a ‘Fat Wallet.’” He slapped his ten on the counter, held the cards in his teeth as he put his thin wallet back in his khakis. Then he was out the door. Five foot six on the dot, I noticed for no real reason. I am exactly a half foot taller when I don’t slouch.
“What do you want?” The next woman in line, a bus driver, heard the question differently than the first customer had. She terminated her call with her oldest daughter who had apparently been watching her younger siblings and answered. “’Five Million Dollar Luck.’” A twenty-dollar ticket. “I need this,” she said, then bustled out, skewed to one side by the weight of her overstuffed purse. It was impossible to tell her height that way.
Then it was just the two of us in the store. It was late, the stacked cases of beer had dwindled to almost nothing. The aisles swept and mopped, the overhead lights a bright white to match. Quiet but for the sound of the buzzing fluorescents. There was a slight scent in the air, of gasoline, and of something else I couldn’t place. Adventure? Fortune? Burnt nacho cheese? I was exhausted. I blinked hard and stepped forward.
“Hi, Gabe,” I said to the man, reading the plastic name badge pinned to his gaudy green and red bowling-style shirt. “Hello, Gabe,” he smiled back, looking up at the patch on my greasy coveralls. What were the odds. Dimples showed on his pink cheeks. “What do you want?”
I felt a swell of poignancy and wonder, sudden and inexplicable, as if I should give a real answer, an honest one. I put a five-dollar bill on the counter, and said, “I’m here for one of the ‘Break the Bank’ scratch offs.” He didn’t move. He was waiting. I had not answered the question. He stared at me, into me, blue eyes probing.
“What I want,” I continued, “Is a job that doesn’t cripple my back. I want to earn wages that are based on my skills, not discounted because of the color of my skin. I want the respect of my fellow man. I want to spend more time with my family. I want to walk tall. And, since you asked, I want the Slurpee machine to be working when I come in here the next time.”
I felt both silly and satisfied. Stared at my unlaced work boots on the gleaming urethane floor.
“Congratulations,” Gabe The Cashier said to me. I looked up, and his smile had doubled. He was pushing my money back across the counter to me.
I took my cash and turned away without word, not daring to speak and break whatever spell had been cast. I wanted, no, needed this brief interchange to be meaningful, somehow. “Thank you,” I said over my shoulder, wondering if there was even anyone there. The bells jarred noisily as I pushed the door open. I glanced over at the measuring tape decal at the exit. Six foot….. two.
“Gabe,” the voice behind me said. I stopped momentarily.
“I’ll fix the Slurpee machine, too.”