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John Paul King


Briefcase in hand, Retribution entered the convenience store in the wee hours of the night and immediately hocked a gooey wad on the floor. Then he passed down the juice and soft drink aisle, wreaking havoc upon it. In his wake, cans and bottles lay strewn about the floor, some bubbling, others outright spewing fizz. Retribution stood looking at what he’d done.

After a minute, a man from behind the counter edged up to him and they watched together, side-by-side.

“Are you the owner?” said Retribution.

“I am,” said the owner.

“Why are you here so late?”

“So early. I’m here so early.”

“Show me around, okay?” requested Retribution.

The owner led Retribution through the store. Retribution held the briefcase behind his back and strolled along with all the pleasant curiosity of a man moseying through the park. The owner was proud of his little operation, it was obvious.

Once they returned to the aisle where Retribution had raised chaos, the two men stopped and faced each other. The owner eyed Retribution calmly. By now the cans and bottles had stopped leaking and the liquids had pooled on the floor according to the subtle geography of the uneven tile. “Can I see your personal workspace?” said Retribution.

“I have a modest office in back. That’s all.”

“That will do,” said Retribution. “Let’s go and talk.”

* * * 

“What, no pictures of your wife and children?” asked Retribution in an easy tone as he looked around the cluttered little office and simultaneously eased into a small metal chair with yellow foam erupting through the ripped leather pad of the seat.

“No,” said the owner from across the desk. He was looking around the office as if he too were seeing it anew. “No, I have neither wife nor child.”

“But you have a mother. Couldn’t you at least have a picture of your mother?”

“I could. But as you can see, I don’t.”

“A cat or dog, even…”

“You’re not here to talk about my lack of sentimental photographs.”

“No, it’s just that, without any pictures of loved ones, you’re making my job almost too easy.”

The owner did not reply and Retribution narrowed his eyes.

“What, you aren’t even going to ask why I’m here?” said Retribution.

“I can ask something like that if you would like me to,” said the owner, “but I figured any second here you’d be saying something along the lines of, ‘Do you know why I’m here?’ and I didn’t want to step on your toes.”

The effect of the owner’s possibly slightly sarcastic response was not lost on Retribution’s face. He spent a moment collecting himself and then said, “I’m here to tell you a little bit about myself. Now, I can either do so verbally or another option is I can provide you with a pamphlet detailing the relevant information.”

Apparently, the owner was a man who understood power dynamics. “Maybe I’ll try the pamphlet,” he said.

Retribution produced a single sheet of tri-folded literature from his briefcase. As the owner skimmed it, he must have had something stuck in a back tooth for, the whole time he was skimming, he was also working at something in his mouth with his tongue and he even began digging at it with a finger. Retribution couldn’t stop watching the owner’s mouth. The trouble the owner was apparently having in a back tooth was something Retribution experienced whenever he ate almonds or raspberries. Perhaps, thought Retribution, whose job description required him to make a good faith effort to empathize, this man was snacking on almonds before I arrived.   

The owner tossed the pamphlet on the desk and said, “Okay.”

“Do you have any questions?”

“Do you want me to have any questions?”

“Listen,” said Retribution curtly. “Part of my job is to make sure you have a thorough understanding of why I’m here.”

“I understand,” said the owner.

“You understand…”

“I understand that that is your job.”

“But you still don’t understand why I’m here…”

“The pamphlet explained it pretty well.”

“That pamphlet, which by the way is yours to keep,” said Retribution as he slid the glossed sheet back across the desk, “is more designed to explain who I am, but not so much why I’m here.”

“Is there a difference?” said the owner.

“It’s subtle,” said Retribution.

“And I suppose you’re going to want to explain it to me. The subtlety of it…”

Retribution had to crack a grin at this openly derisive reply. A powerful man though he was, Retribution did not very well understand the natural tidal movement of a power dynamic in a given conversation and so was always vulnerable to its shifts. The urge to say something obvious such as, Do you know what I’m capable of? or This can go one of two ways was almost overwhelming.  

But a few slow, deep breaths helped break the rage that had been hardening and tightening like cement on his rib cage. Retribution rubbed his eyes. “The reason,” he said, looking up at the owner, “that I need you to understand why I’m here is, what’s the point of me coming in the first place if you don’t think I have a damn good reason to be here?”

“Validation,” said the owner, opening his hands as if to make an offer. “You’re seeking validation. I can understand that. Listen, you’re talking to a man who understands the need to have his work validated, believe me.”

“You think I’m here for my own purposes? Can you possibly be that closed-minded? Can you possibly be that oblivious of the way the world works?”

The owner shoved up in his chair in order to access his pant pocket. GUN! was Retribution’s first thought, but the owner quickly produced a modest baggie of sunflower seeds, BBQ flavored. I enjoy sunflower seeds, Retribution couldn’t help but think to himself. I would choose the ranch flavor myself, but I enjoy the BBQ nonetheless. And I suppose sunflower seeds could get stuck in a man’s back teeth just as easily as almonds or raspberries, why not?

Retribution observed as the owner poured a few seeds into his palm, tossed them in his mouth, and offered the bag to Retribution, who waved it off as a frantic but ultimately futile attempt to maintain his self-respect.

The effect of the fact that this man, the owner of this 24-hour convenience store, was a man who, when he began to pull something harmless out of his pocket, had caused Retribution to fear for his life, was not lost on Retribution. Retribution’s position in this conversation was precarious. And he knew it. And he knew the owner knew it. And he knew the owner knew he knew it. And even before he said what he was about to say, Retribution was already ashamed of himself, embarrassed, but it was too late, for the statement was practically already made; it was practically superfluous by now. “Listen here,” said Retribution,” the people who sent me are filled with an unfathomable rage. You would, I guarantee, much rather deal with me than with them. This is not a threat, this is a promise, and so on and so forth and yada yada yada. Now, tell me, do you understand why I am here?”

John Paul King's work has appeared in BlazeVox. He writes, studies, and works in Bowling Green, KY.