I wish I could forget Phil. A week after my 17th birthday, I started working at a local pharmacy. A pharmacist and clerk covered the back of the store, while I ruled over the Lotto machine and front register. If I worked in the morning, I’d make popcorn, coffee, and hot dogs. If I worked in the evening, I’d clean it all up. Not very glamorous but it was a paycheck. For me, the highlight was the customers. Most of them, at least.
We were encouraged to talk with our customers, the regulars becoming like family. We teased and advised one another. I knew who preferred which brand of cigarettes and the latest happenings at their jobs. They learned about how my junior year of high school was shaping up. Everything a first job should be, but for Phil.
The first night I met him, he sauntered in with panache. This was someone to notice. He introduced himself immediately, reaching to shake my hand, and barely letting me respond before he launched in to a story about his day. Phil’s belly hung over his camo pants, his posture stooped. He appeared to be in his mid-50s but I couldn’t say for sure. Greasy hair stuck out from under a baseball cap, contrasting his manic pace. As he continued talking, I noticed part of his front tooth was missing. A perfect triangle gap. I didn’t want to know how it happened.
Under any other circumstances, Phil would be labeled as “scary.” I would have avoided him. But he was here at the pharmacy, demanding my attention, and somehow setting me at ease. He left after about 10 minutes, long enough to buy cigarettes and Lotto tickets.
A couple of months passed and I forgot about Phil until he walked back in to the store. He launched in to an explanation as soon as I came to the counter.
“I’ve been away for a while but I haven’t forgotten about you or how great you are.”
Strange, yes, but I brushed my reservations aside. He was a customer. He was probably lonely. Not a big deal.
Phil came in more frequently after that. As we chatted, I gathered he did not have the happiest of lives. Whenever he stopped in on Saturday mornings, the alcohol on his breath permeated the air. I felt sorry for him.
Four months after I started working at the pharmacy, Memorial Day rolled around and I was the lucky one working that day. Sounds from the town’s passing parade called to me; it was the first time I hadn’t witnessed it. I buzzed through the opening chores and tackled the list of jobs the manager left for me. Few customers stopped in and soon there was nothing to do but read magazines for the rest of the day. I grabbed a few copies and nestled them between the popcorn machine and coffee maker, leaning over the counter as I flipped pages.
And then I sensed someone watching me, their gaze hot against my head. Don’t be ridiculous, I told myself. There was a window behind the counter but you’d have to look past the sunshade and cigarette cases to see anything. I brushed the feeling aside but the sensation lingered. My head fairly buzzed. Someone was watching me.
I slowly turned around, expecting to laugh at myself when no one was there. To my shock, Phil stood before me on the other side of the glass, his hands cupped around his eyes. Eyes staring straight at me.
He shot straight up and hollered excuses through the thick glass.
My heart thudded as wild as my racing thoughts. Please don’t come in, please don’t come in. I prayed to no avail. He walked in and tried to apologize.
“Oh, sorry…didn’t mean to be looking in on you. I was just trying to figure out who was working in here. That window makes everything look darker. I thought you were a black girl until you turned around,” he blundered, ignoring my telepathic plea for him to stoptalkingstoptalkingstoptalking.
I didn’t know what to say. What could I say? My face turned blank, as did my mind. What could I possibly do? I willed him to leave the store, to leave me alone but he took longer than usual. He couldn’t decide between Camels and Winstons. He didn’t know if he wanted to buy a cigar or a Little Lotto ticket. Never one to linger, he wandered down the magazine aisle after making his purchases. I caught him using the storefront security mirror to spy on me several times. But I didn’t say anything. He was a customer. Surely, he was harmless. Surely.
I pushed the incident aside, until a few weekends later.
Next month, part two.