Selling Toothpaste in Small Towns
(or Five Laments Over My Pac-Man Machine)
The Pac-Man machine can tell time. Because it’s Monday the screen goes blank. I call the repairman in the city. He arrives at my drugstore a half hour later, muttering about gas prices. He could fix the Pac-Man machine in his sleep, has the game working in twenty minutes. I pay him in cash and potato chips.
“See you in a couple days,” says the repairman. He knows he’ll return on Wednesday and Friday and perform the same job. The machine is twenty-five years old, not in great shape, and he’s been fixing it for the past two years.
I stock toothbrushes and toothpaste and wait for someone to walk in and buy something. This takes longer than it did when my dad owned the store. The Pac-Man machine whirrs maliciously. My late wife cursed it. She hates me too much to be around full-time and possess the Pac-Man machine in a more demonic fashion, but the curse works well enough.
I leave offerings of chocolate bars on top of the machine, but she’s not appeased by sweets. She never wanted me to buy the machine. After it was delivered she yelled that it was a piece of junk. Everyone standing on Main Street heard her, watched as she stalked out of the store and to her car, and proceeded to do seventy on fifty-mile-per-hour country roads. I patted the Pac-Man machine and wished she could have more perspective. It wasn't like I'd bought a car...
A week after that debacle, she came back from the city late at night. Made a sharp turn on an icy road. Hit the telephone pole. People whisper (loudly) that she’d been visiting her lover, an electrician. I’d suspected something like that, but if she wanted to have another guy I didn’t care. I was too weary. She was a lost cause and I don't waste time on lost causes, prefer to focus on what can be salvaged. At the funeral I felt odd waves of sadness. We’d spent the past five years not liking each other much. What would have happened if she’d lived? I cried, tears I hadn't realized were hiding behind my eyes.
That night I walked home to our apartment and her snowman collection. On the weekends she'd gone to antique shows with other bank tellers and purchased outrageously expensive snowmen figurines. She said it was in investment. After she died I swear all the snowmen looked mournful.
I eat a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. The Pac-Man machine smells of smoke. I wait for it to explode, but it doesn’t. Patty, a bank teller who used to work with my wife, comes in to buy toothpaste.
“Do you have bubblegum flavor?” she asks.
“No,” I say, “just mint.”
“Oh,” she says. “My kids really like bubblegum flavor.”
She leaves without buying anything, will get the toothpaste at another store in the city. They have variety I can’t support. I’ve been running the store for ten years. Since my father died. Folks say they need me in town, but stuff is cheaper in the city. Most people make the half-hour drive there to shop a couple times a week. I get business from folks who only need a couple items.
In the evening the Pac-Man machine still reeks of plastic smoke. Maybe it has a short circuit somewhere. I’m not sure how my wife managed to curse the machine so effectively. If she were still alive it’s the first thing I’d ask her. That of talent wasn’t apparent while she was around, but she did smell of smoke. She started smoking before the accident. Or maybe it was just the stench of her electrician lover.
“You smell weird,” I told her the week before she died.
“Weird how?” she said.
“Just strange,” I said, sniffing her shoulder. “Stale maybe.”
I was really tired, didn’t have my wits about me to be more suspicious than I already was.
“Thanks,” she said.
“I’m going to bed,” I said.
The next day the Pac-Man machine arrived and she blew up at me. I don’t know if she was as mad about it as she pretended to be. She wanted an excuse to visit her electrician.
Before closing for the night I stand in front of the Pac-Man machine and wonder how easy or difficult it would be for the machine to have a short circuit. An electrical problem that would make the display of cheap stuffed animals behind it catch fire. I rub my hand over my chin. I’ve totaled the receipts for the day. Not enough.
Back in my apartment, the snowman collection glares at me with tiny white faces.
I live in the apartment my wife and I shared for fifteen years. It was too small for both of us. We clashed when we were together. Bumped in the kitchen. Thrashed in bed. Couldn’t fit in the bathroom at the same time. But some days my single toothbrush beside the sink looks lonely, reminds me that all I have to show for thirty-seven years of life is this apartment and a failing drugstore and a bunch of snowmen. They're on every bookshelf and table and cabinet. I haven’t been able to get rid of them. It seems like too big a project.
I make coffee. The kitchen smells of toast. I hate toast. It's too dry. But she always had toast in the morning.
“What if I left you?” she said at breakfast three months before she died.
“That would be sad,” I said, though I didn’t feel it at the time. There were too many snowmen eying me across the kitchen--the salt and pepper shakers on the counter, the spoon rest on the stove, a little family of them arranged on top of the fridge.
I fill a thermos with the rest of my coffee and walk two blocks to work.
Last year I started a rumor that the shop might close. For a month it scared people into buying shampoo and toothpaste and extra-strength pain reliever. I pop into the café two doors down from the store to grab day-old donuts. I get them for half price, less than that if I’m lucky.
“How’s business?” says Minnie the waitress.
“No so good,” I say. “I may have to pack up and move.”
“I remember you mentioned that last year,” she says.
I nod. Minnie is a good person to use when one wants to spread gossip. If she doesn’t help me on this one, I don’t know what I’ll do. It’s hard to sustain a business with quiet threats. They have a nasty habit of turning into reality.
I'm not the only business owner in town who's having problems. There are three empty storefronts on Main Street. The hardware store owner says he may close and retire, but the old people at the cafe say they're not worried. Town will survive because it always has. I try to remember that they have been around longer than me and know these things.
I unlock the front door of the drugstore, walk inside, pat the Pac Man machine, and leave my bag of donuts on the controls while I turn the Closed sign Open. The Pac-Man machine is the object of many of my pointless rituals. Stupid, but I’d feel neglectful if I didn’t do them every day. It’s a small attempt to regain control. Or at least pacify my wife. I get my donuts and sit behind the counter. The Pac Man machine blinks calmly.
My wife saw business drying up. She told me it would get worse. My customer flow has decreased since she died. Some afternoons I play six games of Pac-Man to cheer myself up and think of Dad. Every Sunday he closed the store and we went to the pizza parlor for lunch. He brought twenty quarters, and we played Pac-Man before and after we ate. We didn’t say much, but Dad used up most of his words during the week, talking with customers.
My mother understood Dad. She understood long hours. She understood quietude. She understood dinner at nine. For them marriage was a simple process, almost mystical in the way they communicated through nods and slight hand gestures.
My wife was a bank teller, as both her parents had been. Her hands were cold and smelled of money. She started complaining about my job after we turned thirty.
“You’re never home,” she said.
“I have a store,” I said, meaning I had to be there twelve hours a day.
“Hire help,” she said.
“I’m not making enough money,” I said.
“We need to move,” she said. “You could make more working for someone else.”
But we didn’t have the money to leave. I didn’t think anyone would buy the shop, and I couldn’t part with the store. I knew it was failing so I had to throw myself into it, but things didn't improve and I kept using myself up. It's the same thing I see other store owners in town doing. We exhaust ourselves repainting and rewiring and installing new shelves, cemented to the foundations of our buildings because of promises we made to our parents and this town.
My father wanted me to take over, made that clear when I was in high school. If there were other options, I didn’t consider them. It was like that with my wife. We got married after high school because we’d been dating for three years and didn’t think we’d find anyone we liked better. I chew my donuts. Too dry. Could I have foreseen how town would dissolve? Should I have guessed my wife was not meant to be married to a storekeeper? I'd thought she understood enough about the business to understand me...
When my wife was alive, we spent Sunday mornings in bed trying to have a kid. That was fun. But after fifteen years of marriage and thousands of hours of sex, we never managed. At first she blamed her body. Later she blamed mine.
“You’re too fat,” she said. “Fat men have a difficult time conceiving.”
“Your body is too acidic,” I said. I remembered enough high school anatomy to know the insides of a female were not designed to be nice to sperm.
“That’s why your sperm need to be more active,” she said. “They're lethargic.”
What I said was true, she could be acidic, but I have never been a lazy person and she should have known that. Maybe at times I have been too determined, but never lazy. And I'm sure my sperm weren't, either.
I wanted a kid so I could teach him to play Pac-Man. There are a lot of tricks you learn after you've played the game for a long time. Places in the maze where you can hide from the ghosts. Patterns in how the ghosts move. They don't go around the maze in the same way. When I tried to explain the subtleties to my wife, she rolled her eyes. I knew our child would be different. He'd appreciate these things.
At noon two little kids come in to play Pac-Man machine. It smells of smoke, but the little kids don’t notice or care. I watch from behind the counter. The kids cheer and groan and spend a dollar fifty in quarters.
“Was that fun?” I ask when they leave.
“It’s cool because it’s so old,” says one of the kids.
“Next time you come back,” I say, “I’ll give you a couple games for free.”
The kids beam at me. That feels good.
That night I wrap my wife’s porcelain snowmen collection in newspapers and arrange the bundles in cardboard boxes.
“They're collectibles,” she said whenever I griped about the cost of her hobby. “They’ll increase in value.”
Now I get to find out if she was right. After I sell the snowmen, I’ll use the proceeds to pay the repairman for coming back to fix the Pac-Man machine. The snowmen grimace at me as I wrap them in newspaper, but that's no different than usual.
I buy four donuts in the morning and tell Minnie this might be my last month in operation.
“Not enough sales,” I say. “The building is old and needs repairs. I’m worried about the wiring. That can cause problems, you know.”
Fires are not unreasonable in old buildings. People understand that.
“Where will you go?” she says.
“Where everyone else is going,” I say. “To the city.”
“My nephew just moved there,” she says. “He likes it.”
“Oh,” I say.
I put my donuts on top of the Pac-Man machine. Turn the Closed sign to Open. Collect my donuts and replace them with two chocolate bars. This is the Wednesday ritual, performed in the hopes that the Pac-Man machine will not break down in the afternoon. But it does. I call the repairman. He arrives with his tool kit. Three old guys stand beside the Pac-Man machine, waiting to note the time when it starts working again.
They pick lotto numbers based on how long the machine works after it’s fixed. I don’t ask if the tickets are successful, but they keep on with the ritual so there must be something to it. They’d be disappointed if the store burned down. I don’t know who else would be, though everyone in town claims to need me for last-minute purchases. Last-minute purchases can’t keep me in business.
“Does the machine smell like smoke to you?” I ask the repairman.
“No,” he says.
The old guys jot down the time when Pac-Man starts working.
“I just wondered,” I say.
The old guys each buy a bag of chips and a chocolate bar.
If the store burned down, people would understand why I had to move to the city. There wouldn’t be enough insurance money to start again.
I rethink the short in the Pac-Man machine’s circuitry. Perhaps that is too drastic. But if something else shorts out, the lighting or heating in the building, I will have to explain how I got the Pac-Man machine out of the store.
When my wife and I went out for breakfast, the last meal we had together, it was Sunday morning. We went to the cafe and ordered eggs and toast and bacon and she said town was dissolving. She said we needed to get out. She said the store would be worth more if I burned it down. She said I was a shame to my father.
Everyone in the cafe stared. I had to be as loud as her, say my parents had lived their whole lives here and they would have never left. Towns like ours didn't die.
She said I was sentimental and unrealistic and blind to what was happening.
Everyone kept staring. That moment firmed my resolve to stay. I had to defend my store and my town. Her statement made it inevitable. I was too mad at her, at that all too public display, to care what happened next.
I wake up in the kitchen. Six o’clock in the morning. It smells of toast. On the table there's a box of soda crackers, a box of gingersnaps, a bunch of crumbs. I’ve been sleep eating. Sometimes I forget to eat at work or don’t feel like having dinner. Around three in the morning my stomach demands food, drags my body to the kitchen even if the rest of me isn’t conscious.
My dad was a sleep eater. Our best conversations were after waking to find we’d polished off the leftover roast beef and half a pound of cheese.
“Marry a woman you’re sure is smarter than you,” he said. “A thinker like your mother. Then when she makes suggestions, you won’t spend a lot of time arguing.”
My dad liked my wife. He said I chose a good woman. As good as my mother.
Was my wife smarter than me? I don’t know what my father would have said about her plan to leave town. He once told me that there’s a time for being sentimental and a time for being practical, but it’s hard to separate the two.
If my wife were still alive she’d be living with the electrician. I’d be a divorcee instead of a widower. I wouldn’t have snowmen to sell. I don’t know why it is hard to sell them. Some part of me must love her. I’d like to get rid of that feeling along with the snowmen. Maybe I don’t really love her, but think I do out of habit. I got used to loving her. Or at least saying I did. Every morning when I kissed her good-bye, she smelled of toast.
I decided my marriage would come after the store. It was logical, especially when I considered my parents' marriage, how it seemed so easy and automatic. They worked together naturally. I thought that was how things happened. But if I had decided that the marriage would come first, could we have saved things? Probably not. Even if I had tried to please her by moving to the city, things would have ended the same way. We were too far gone.
In the morning the Pac-Man machine is dead. Again.
I call the repairman in the city.
“I think you should take it back to your shop and really look it over,” I say.
“It will cost more,” he says.
“That’s fine,” I say.
I bring my wife’s snowman collection to work, three big cardboard boxes. Around ten in the morning there’s no business, so I close the store for a few minutes and walk one of the boxes of snowmen to the bank. I want to hear what the other snowman-loving tellers think. Where I should sell the figurines. How I should price them.
Some of the tellers don’t like me, frown when I walk in, but Patty smiles. It makes me wonder what my wife told them about me.
“It’s taken you this long to sell the snowmen?” says Patty.
“They were all over the apartment,” I say.
She looks at the first box and gives me an estimate. More than I expected.
“I’m not an expert,” she says, “but if you took them to an antiques dealer you should ask for at least that much. Your wife knew an investment when she saw it.”
“I might be going to the city soon,” I say. “Maybe Saturday morning.”
I walk to the store. The box feels lighter now.
When I was a little kid I sat behind the counter and ate licorice and watched my dad help customers. It seemed like the best job in the world.
I lower the snowman box to the floor behind the cash register and wait for the repairman to come and get the Pac-Man machine.