With a beard the color of November clouds, the man came in most mornings at seven o’clock sharp when the gas station’s convenience store opened. The electric door chime sounded and he shuffled through in his tufty shoes, schlepping his plastic bag bounteous with empty bottles. The smells of earth, sweat and cypress clung to him.
He would place the vacant vessels into the reverse vending machine and monitor the progress down the conveyer belt as each one disappeared like luggage at the airport. He would push the green button and examine his credit receipt. Then he would scan the selection in the snack aisle before bringing his choice to the counter. He usually preferred a packet of mini powdered doughnuts or a small bag of nacho chips. His frowzy flannel shirt was always speckled with traces of the previous days’ treats. On special occasions or holidays, the man picked up a pint of rose hip ale.
“Branches are sanctuaries. Did you know that?” the man told Samuel one morning. His conversations were frequent, thoughtful and abstract. “They hold a sacred story on every leaf. They anchor in tight to the tree. No preaching, just standing still. Like this.” The man stiffened his body, his eyes full and spreading. After a moment, he released his stance with a laugh. “Herman Hesse said ‘Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.’”
For three years, Samuel’s daily shift often began with the exchange of the man’s bottle deposit. The man always greeted him with a voice that was soft thunder, rolling from a distance through a forest filled with sweet, warm rain. He told Samuel he had studied metaphysics, logic and ethics and worked at a gas station himself once. Looking out the window towards the pumps, he said he had dispensed Locke and Descartes maxims with every fill.
Self-service pumps ended that. “’He who will not economize will have to agonize’. That was Confucius.” The man shrugged his shoulders, his laugh balmy and woody.
Walking through the park one day, Samuel saw the man sprawled on a bench, reading a book. With a grin spreading across his seasoned jowl, the man sat up and invited Samuel to join him.
“What are you reading?”
“Nietzsche. Here, take a look.” The man passed him the book, the pages worn and sticking together.
Samuel scanned a few pages and rubbed his temple. “It’s over my head. How do you understand all this stuff?”
“Ha! If I wanted to be served, I’d go to a restaurant. Maybe even ask the waiter to cut my food for me. But I don’t go to books to be served. I like words that make me chew for a while.”
Samuel found the man dead by the store’s back door when he arrived for work one morning. His jacket was worn at the elbows and the soles of his shoes were damp and flapping in the early morning wind. His gray hair blended with the gravel in which he was lying face down. Samuel squatted next to him, shook his shoulder. He held his wrist. No pulse, no prana.
The authorities came, asked a few questions and concluded it was natural causes. Samuel couldn’t provide the man’s name. He only knew the man collected his bottles from the park, liked to strike up conversation with the early morning customers and always took a few minutes to ask Samuel about his family and outings with friends. They would stand at the register watching the quiet transition of dawn while exchanging anecdotes.
The officer said there wouldn’t be an investigation unless the coroner found something suspicious. The man’s corpse, filled with Plato and Aquinas, was taken away. The empty bottles in his plastic bag were left, releasing fading scents.
Samuel put the bag in his car’s trunk. He remembered the man reflecting on Confucius: everything has beauty, he had said, but not everyone can see it. If no relatives claimed the man, the state would cremate his body and dispose of the ashes.
The man wasn’t going to walk through the store again. No more clinking bottles or stories of men in suits who passed their credit cards to him through windows rolled only halfway down. No one to ask Samuel first thing in the morning how he was, what he was doing after work, if he had played ball with his buddies the night before.
The man who exchanged his bottle credit for rose hip ale and finger-staining treats was gone.
But when Samuel closed his eyes, the man was like an endless song repeating in his head. The dreams were a twisted stew of sensations, images reduced and recycled. The man kept coming back, begging to be seen.
The man was orange dust on fingertips tapping the store window, body parts in bottles fed into the hole of a machine, a gas pump encased in thorns that leaked rose petals and sweat. His face smiled through plastic bags. He rode on a conveyer belt until his worth was spat out on a receipt and brought to the counter for redemption. The coins and bills Samuel handed to customers had quotes in Chinese characters and were smudged with powdered sugar. The man was dust, rising from gravel at the back door and smelling of freshly cut wood.
If Samuel didn’t sleep, the man remained a friend who asked if he preferred ham or turkey for Christmas dinner. He was the customer who inquired if Samuel was tired, then offered to exchange his bottle credit to buy him a cup of coffee. When the man wasn’t in his dreams, he remained a life replete with anecdotes of cleaning the windshields of mothers who rolled their eyes at him.
Samuel started working on the crossword puzzles in the daily newspaper. He tucked away grief in to those outlined spaces. Then dawn slipped through his apartment window and the letters in those boxes blurred and bent.
He sometimes put on his shoes and went for a run past houses with front porch lights that had been turned off many hours before. Ice water, coffee, cold showers, soda, spicy food, gum, online gaming, and YouTube videos kept him from dreaming.
If Samuel didn’t dream, the man wouldn’t be waiting at the back door, sitting next to his own carcass wearing a sticker that read “Hello, my name is…you never asked.”
His supervisor met with him to discuss incomplete inventories and shelves that hadn’t been restocked. Sweating, rubbing his hands on his knees, Samuel said he would try harder.
Online searches revealed that dreams occur during REM sleep. He took naps with a timer set for forty-five minutes to relieve his exhaustion without allowing the dreams to return. When the timer went off, he clambered from his pit with jumping jacks and push-ups.
Sometimes when he napped, his mind lingered in a murky zone between sleeping and waking. The dreams came, but he could control them. If the man showed up with his toes sticking out of shoes made from bark and wearing a crown of cypress leaves, Samuel walked him back to the door and told him the store was closed.
When he slept, the man melted and returned in different forms. He was a bottle broken against the back door, shattered glass crunching under Samuel’s bare feet. Bottles resting on sliced logs filled the store. Rose hips grew from stalks that stretched out of the refrigerated display unit and wrapped around the cash register. Books cut into small pieces sat on paper plates with plastic forks and knives.
Candy bars and packs of gum were being stolen. Samuel’s supervisor reminded him to keep his eyes on the surveillance screens when customers were in that part of the store. Those mounted boxes above the register made his heart race. In his dreams, the man waved to him from every aisle, raised his bottle in a toast or offered him a doughnut.
At the library, Samuel checked out books on Nietzsche, Descartes and others the man had talked about. He learned a concept attributed to Aristotle regarding how the educated mind could entertain thoughts without accepting them.
A young woman approached the counter with a loaf of bread and a pack of beef jerky. Strands of stringy brown hair fell from a barrette and her nipples looked like flowers under her t-shirt. A floral perfume braided with smoke floated around her.
“Hey, some Camels, too.” She licked her apple red lips as she dug in her purse for crumpled up bills.
Samuel placed a pack of Marlboros on the counter and started pushing buttons on the register.
“Oh, I said Camels.” Her voice was soft and slippery, with a hint of something rattling deeper in her throat.
“Right. Sorry. Haven’t been sleeping much lately.”
“Yeah, tough these days.” She tapped her long black-painted fingernails on the counter.
“Sure is.” Samuel exchanged the cigarette boxes and rang up the purchase.
She scanned the store and leaned in. Her breath was braided in mint and smoke, which curled around her whispered words. “Need anything? Cookies, black beauty?”
Her chocolate eyes were speckled with gold under raised eyebrows. The hum of the refrigerator units and the piped in music through the store speakers crashed together, a morphing reverberation like carousel music or ice cream truck melodies.
His hand trembled as he smoothed her crumpled bills and put them in the till. He had been clean for six months when he took the required drug test needed to be hired for this job. His fingers scraped in the coin tray for her change. The heat from the overhead lights landed on his forehead.
Her open hand was buttery, the creases shimmering. He paused, then released the change into her palm. “No. It’s okay.”
“Just let me know if you change your mind.” She winked, walked out with her hair swaying in sync with her hips.
Samuel rubbed his eyes. He was starving for air. Dizzy, his stomach threatening to reject his breakfast, he sat on the stool and tried to breathe. The store was empty. No cars were at the pumps outside.
His buddies had been urging him for weeks to play ball. He had canceled plans with his mother for fear of falling asleep at the wheel during the two-hour drive to her house. His inventories and restocking were both late and his supervisor had scheduled another meeting.
He needed more than naps.
One time, the man had brought his credit receipt to the counter mumbling about cardboard houses, old cars and broken pipes. Samuel knew to wait for the man to sum up this random string of thoughts with some quote.
“Rusty cars. Do you just dump them? Socrates said ‘the secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.’ How about that, my friend?” The man took his bag of chips and shuffled out the door.
Samuel thought about the woman’s apple lips, but also of how he missed the sounds of the bouncing ball on the gym floor mixed with the squeak of sneakers and his friends’ courtside taunts. He missed the smell of saturated earth that the man wore like a book wears words.
The bag of bottles had been rattling in his car trunk for four months. After his shift, he went back inside the store. He fed each bottle through the hole, watching the digital display calculating their worth. He hit “done” and printed the credit receipt. He threw the plastic bag in the garbage and took a rose hip ale from the refrigerated display unit.
“You don’t strike me as a flowery ale type.” Juan, who covered the evening shift, joked as he rang him up.
“Yeah, well, not usually. It’s for a friend.”
At home, Samuel called the sheriff’s office. No one had come to claim the man, and his ashes had been disposed of. He also called his employee assistance program and left a message requesting a call-back regarding the need for a referral. Samuel returned the books, but only after he had photocopied a page from a book on Nietzsche.
Samuel walked to the park and sat on the bench where he once sat with the man who said he liked to chew on books. Fathers pushed strollers, women carried briefcases, and dogs pulled their joggers until dusk settled the birds and woke the crickets.
From his backpack, he removed the bottle and the photocopied page. Samuel swallowed in the night air and looked at the paper under the glow of the park lights.
“Nietzsche said ‘To be sure, I am a forest, a night of dark trees: but he who is not afraid of my darkness, will find banks full of roses under my cypresses.’” He folded up the paper and put it under the bench, weighted it down with the rose hip ale. “Good night, my friend.”
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