Fiction — “Star Liquor on Parkwood Road and Techniplex”

The man opened the door for his wife and, seeing Duke Hudson, kept it open. Duke walked faster but called out, “You don’t have to. It hurts, y’know?”

“Take your time,” said the man, remaining at his post. The old man still hurried, and you could see Duke had a crick in his step, the kind WD-40 can’t fix.

“Thanks,” said Duke when they were inside. “Just did three shows and I’m not your age anymore.” The man didn’t ask what kind of shows but nodded and followed his wife. Spurned, Duke went over to appraise cigars, only to find himself with the man again. Eh, what the hell.

“This place is an oasis,” said Duke as if they were returning to an earlier conversation. “Been living here a few years, and this is the nicest thing they built.”

He wasn’t wrong, either. Other than apartments, the Techniplex was one of those boring business parks with storefronts like Carpets & Floors and Greater Houston Shipping Services and Billiards Galore. Everything was brick ranging from smokey gray to bright blood-cream, standing like tombstones or bloody teeth on palisades of grass.

“Not bad,” said the man, before slipping away again.

Now Duke was no Socrates, but he felt the potential for rapport, if at least the fleeting affirmation that they were two potent and interesting men. One more time, thought Duke, feeling conspiratorial. He scanned a Twix Bar’s nutrition while he found the couple. The wife was headed for the register while the man was behind the island of coffee machines. Faking an interest in frozen burritos, Duke slinked around the other side of the island, but the man was onto him and turned to the cashier: “Where do you keep cough drops?” The cashier indicated the wall behind the counter, a quilt of yellow and red bags, and the man doubled back.

But discouragement didn’t come easy to Duke. He’d been outwitted, but he saw another opportunity to greet the man. Duke could plant himself by the newspapers and on the couple’s way out he could get the door and say, “Just paying it forward” or the winner, “Take your time.”

It started. Duke headed down the freezers, trying to keep out of their periphery, but the couple saw him, and quickly swiped their card, realized the machine took chip, pushed in chip. The old man navigated three men in jeans with white paint flecks on their legs and as he passed the wine the couple punched no don’t want cash back and yes that’s the right amount. He swung by auto parts and the ATM like the meticulous, painful revolution of the second hand as it scrapes the bend of the clock. No, don’t want to donate to kids missing kidneys and parents. Bags, receipt? No.

They were out the door. As Duke opened it a second later, another old man slipped in and said thank you, sir. Duke told him to fuck off and hobbled out.