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Fiction Friday, November 27, 2020

Out of Business

The key was stuck, again.

Every year, once it started getting cold outside, the gate key began to give Joseph problems. He broke the only spare he had the previous winter, so this was his only way to open up shop on the busiest shopping day of the year. Black Friday wasn’t as big a deal for him as it was for all those big chain stores, especially with so many folks shopping online nowadays. Couple all that with protests in the streets and Covid-19 restrictions, and it wasn’t looking great for Old Joe’s Bike Shop, Established 1981.

Joseph had to be ginger as could be with this key. He was still a bit early to open up, but there were a few things he wanted to get set up before the Black Friday shoppers started to show up, and time was wasting thanks to the gate lock he should have gotten repaired the last time this happened. It was a chilly morning, and his hands ached whenever it was this cold, so he was having a difficult time being as careful with the key as he wanted to be. He rubbed his light-skinned palms together to warm them a bit, then went back to it, sweat pouring down from his shaved head, his mask sneaking its way up the bridge of his nose and getting a little in the way of his eyes. He wiggled the key side to side, trying to convince the pins and springs within the old gate lock to loosen up a little.

“C’mon…,” he stopped himself from swearing at the lock, hearing his wife’s voice in the back of his head reminding him he promised to clean up his act. He managed to get the key in a bit further, but then it became wedged tightly in place and he could neither seat it fully inside nor remove it to try again. The urge to swear returned, his frustration with the key, the lock, the gate, and the whole store making him feel like throwing up his hands and throwing in the towel.

That wasn’t an option, though, and it wasn’t how he was brought up, nor how he brought up his own kids. He considered going back to his truck and grabbing the big pipe wrench he kept under the back seat to give the key a little tap, but that was how he broke the last key. He also considered trying to warm the lock up, but he didn’t smoke, anymore, and he no longer carried a lighter on him.

Reaching into his coat pocket, he pulled out his cell phone. It was an old Nokia flip phone, the first and only cell phone he had ever owned, or ever intended to. His daughter Janice called him a ‘dinosaur,’ because he was so set in his ways, refusing to upgrade to something newer because he believed in using a thing until it stopped working, then trying to fix it, and then after all else failed, getting a new one. He got the free phone the cell phone company offered at the time, which had to be about fifteen years ago, and as beaten up, scuffed, and worn out as it was, it still made calls and that was good enough for Old Joe.

As he flipped the phone open he saw the same message he had seen for years and years on the screen:

99+ Unread Text Messages

That, too, elicited his daughter’s ‘dinosaur’ slur, but as he always told her, “what ever happened to just having a conversation with a man?”

Resting back against the bars of the cage protecting his storefront, he scratched at his beard through the thin fabric of his mask, glanced side to side to see if anyone was watching, and pulled it away from his face a few inches so he could catch his breath. He hated breathing his own stale air over and over. It made him yawn and sometimes a little lightheaded, but rules were rules, and to run a business, this was one rule he had to follow no matter what. Blinking a few times as he readjusted the mask beneath his lower eyelids, he stared down at the worn-down, barely legible numbers on his flip phone’s keypad.

“What’s his number…,” Joseph grumbled, making a face beneath his mask as he tried to recall the phone number for the locksmith he used the last time this happened with his gate key. It was on a thin, square magnet he had on the front of the small refrigerator he kept in his garage by his tools. Unable to remember the number, he laughed and shook his head, dialing home, instead. He knew he might be waking his wife up, but he had ten minutes to get the gate open before customers started showing up, and he expected to hear the phone inside ringing, soon.

“Joe? What’s wrong,” Sandra asked, her voice echoing a bit because she must have been in the bathroom. He laughed. She was such a worrier, his wife.

“Catch you in the bathroom?”

She laughed and replied by flushing the toilet. His smile pulled his mask down a bit when she said, “Just powdering my nose, baby. You okay?”

“Yeah, good morning, beautiful,” he said. He had left very early that morning to try to get his morning walk in before heading to work, and while he would normally have stopped back into the bedroom to give her a kiss goodbye, he hadn’t done so that morning. As he heard her voice on the phone, he regretted it, and he became a bit homesick. “Can you do me a favor, though? I need you to head on out to the garage and get me the number for the locksmith off the magnet on my beer fridge.”

“Good Lord,” she said as he heard her moving through the house, “Did that key get stuck, again? I told you to get that lock fixed last year.”

"Yeah, well, I didn't," he said through her yawn. She asked him what he said because her yawning took up all the space in her ears. He replied, "I said you're right, as usual."

"Mmm hmm," Sandra replied, skeptically. "You sound cold... did you wear your jacket?"

"Yeah, baby, I'm wearing it,” he said, shivering even as she mentioned it. “It's bitter cold, so if you head out today for anything you bundle up good, okay?"

"I was going to head out to Target, try to see if I can get some Christmas shopping done," she replied. She could hear her working to get a pair of slippers on her feet before heading out to the garage. “Did you try the wrench in your truck? Give it a tap or something?”

“No, that’s what broke the key, last time,” Joseph glanced up at the sign over his store: Old Joe's Bike Shop, Established 1981. For thirty-nine years he had run this store, and every Friday after Thanksgiving he had to get the place opened up earlier and earlier to take advantage of the extra shoppers who went out trying to take advantage of all the sales. He ran a flyer in the local paper every year, giving a big discount on mountain bikes, road bikes, and BMX bikes... even the e-Bikes his daughter insisted he add to his inventory a few years ago.

He was now ten minutes late opening his gate. His phone inside the shop didn't ring at all while he stood there waiting for his wife of 47 years to get him the phone number for the locksmith. It didn't ring once, and he didn't see a soul on the road.

"Ah, I got the number. You ready, baby," Sandra asked. Joseph answered with a curt '’uh huh,' and she gave him the number. He said it again to her just to force it to stay in his memory long enough so he could dial it after he hung up with his wife.

"Okay, thank you, beautiful. Don't forget your mask if you do head out, ok," he reminded her. She groaned, and he understood why. It was so hard to get a decent breath in these things, especially now they were older and needed all the oxygen they could get. However, it was what the news said would protect them, and you couldn't go anywhere without them without some young kid coming up and scolding you. If it helped, it was worth it, he guessed. He was skeptical, but he wore his, and just in case, he made sure Sandra remembered to wear hers, too.

They said their 'I love you's,' and Joseph hung up to call the locksmith. After it rang a few times, a recording started to play:

"Thank you for calling Elmcraft Locksmiths. Due to the shutdowns and all the damage that was done during the protests to our location, we have been forced to close our doors after 22 years serving our neighborhood. We thank you for business through the years, and we hope you are safe, happy, and healthy."

Joseph hit 'end' on his phone and flipped it closed. He wiped his hand over his bald head and looked back at his reflection in his store window, through the bars of the gate he couldn't unlock. His store got a brick smashed through it, too, and the florist across the street lost so much that week they couldn't reopen, at all. The same gate he couldn’t get opened kept the damage his store suffered to a minimum, but he saw that down the road from his shop, one of the protesters lit a coffee shop's front awning on fire.

All that Joseph had to do was replace a few panes of glass and clean up a bit. A lot of others weren't so fortunate, and when the Chamber of Commerce came around looking for donations to help his neighboring businesses rebuild, he emptied his register for them without hesitation.

It had been a half an hour past his regular opening time, on Black Friday, and there wasn't a soul to be found. He hadn't missed a single phone call.

He tried the key again, but it wasn't budging. He started to dial home, again, to ask his wife to look for another locksmith in the Yellow Pages, but he didn't bother. He could hear her in the back of his head, again, laughing and reminding him Google was a thing. Sighing deeply, Joseph stuffed his phone back in his pocket, removed the keyring from his stuck-solid gate key so he could reclaim his truck key, and walked over to the small, otherwise empty parking lot beside his red brick building. He opened the driver's side door, slid in the seat, and started his truck up to get the heat going.

"Thirty-nine years," he said as he warmed his hands over the heater vents. "Jesus, help us. I don't know how much more we can take."

He waited for a few more minutes, the cold fleeing his fingers while the ache it caused lingered there in his knuckles. He then turned the truck back off, planning to get out and take the pipe wrench to the key, after all. Then, he heard the sound his phone made whenever he received a text message.

He shook his head and was about to get out of the truck when he decided to take out his phone and call his wife to look up another locksmith, after all. When he opened his phone, his finger slipped and he hit the button to read the most recent text message. He never hit that button once in the fourteen years he owned it, but his hands were still sore from the cold, outside, and today became the exception.

The small screen of his old Nokia flip phone with the scuffed corners and half-cracked cover displayed a three-word message.

"Try the wrench."

He saw that the text message came from Sandra's much newer cell phone, a Samsung s0mething-or-other. She was much more tech savvy about these things than Joseph was, even though she was a few years older than him. He laughed and blinked rapidly as he tried to figure out how to reply to her via text. She would get a kick out of seeing him fumbling around, hitting every wrong button possible, taking a solid three minutes to send his reply:

"I will thanks I love you"

After sending his reply, he decided, for the heck of it, to start scrolling back through all the messages he had missed over the years. He swore against texting out of principle because he knew how much meaning could be lost in translation without hearing a person's tone of voice.

Every message was from his wife, and one after another he fell in love with her, again:

"It's gonna be cold tomorrow so I got your winter coat out of the closet for you. I love you."

"Thinking of you, baby."

"I miss you, get home safe."

"News said riots, please be careful Joe."

"Remembered my mask this time, thanks. I love you."

"Making barley beef soup tonight!" "I'm heading to the store. I'll get beer for your little fridge, baby."

"The car runs great, now! Thanks for fixing it. I love you."

"I am so proud of you, baby. Thank you for taking such good care of me."

"I love you."

"You're gonna miss the boxing match. I'll set the VCR, don't worry. Love you."

"Covid test was negative. It's just a cold. I'm okay. I love you."

“I love you.”

"My car's running strange. Can you check it out? It's making a kinda chug-kachug sound at stop lights. I love you."

"Tom next door's cat was in our garbage again. I got it cleaned up but I swear that thing is a terror. I love you."

There were dozens and dozens of messages, most of them just text, but a few of them including pictures Sandra had taken and sent to him. One was a picture of him out on his riding lawnmower with their granddaughter on his lap. He had no idea she took that picture. There was another of herself in the mirror, smiling at him with the added message: ‘I got my hair done, today. What do you think, baby? I love you.’ Then there was another of a big old turkey buzzard standing next to their garage with a message attached: 'Shoo that thing away when you get home, baby!'

He laughed. He remembered that day. The ornery bird flapped its wings at him and chased him back down the driveway. He had to bang the garbage can lids together to scare it off. Sandra was laughing and watching the whole thing from the porch swing, cheering him on, saying 'come on, Joe! You can take him!'

He remembered getting home and wondering what Sandra was trying to get him to notice about her. He was lucky he guessed that it was her hair because it was a complete shot in the dark. He remembered fixing the car and watching that boxing match she taped for him. She remembered eating her incredible barley beef soup that one night, and when she came up and gave him a bunch of great big kisses all over his face the night he had to close up, early.

It was the night some fool through a damn brick through his front window. Joseph kept reading texts and remembering all the moments he and his wife of 47 wonderful years had shared. These were the little things he was talking about the night before as he gave his traditional Thanksgiving toast.

He didn't care for the fact that half is family had to be there through a Skype call his wife set up. He missed his son and his daughter, and even his son-in-law. He missed his granddaughter, too... and his own mom and dad, who had passed on a long time ago. It was just Joe and Sandra at the table, with everyone else gathered around on the screen of his wife's Samsung something-or-other, and at the time he gave the speech he was feeling a little bitter about how weird 2020 had made everything.

"There's a lotta anger out there in the world, but at grandma and grandpa's house, tonight, it's nothing but love and all the little things that make life good, no matter how bad things get. We gotta be thankful for those little things, and for each other."

He was happy with how his speech came out, and his family seemed to enjoy it, but it wasn't until that moment, as he scrolled through 283 separate text messages over the course of two hours in his truck without a single car coming to visit his store that he realized it was all those little things that mattered so much more. The truth of his Thanksgiving message made more sense to him as he read his wife's funny, loving, concerned, romantic, beautiful messages that he had let pile up on his Nokia flip phone. The screen still said he had 99+ left to read, and he was determined to get through every single one.

He thought he was ignoring those messages out of some strange defiance against the concept of texting, but it turned out he was letting them build up just so he could read them on the Black Friday when he realized he was going out of business, after all, just to remind him that so long as he had all those little things, life was good, no matter how bad things got.

His phone rang. It was her, and he was so happy that he dropped his phone down onto the floor of his truck between his legs just as he answered it.

"Ah, dang it... hang on, baby! I dropped the phone...," he yelled as he fumbled around with his fingers to retrieve it. He brought the phone up to his ear and heard her laughing at him, which made him laugh at himself.

"Did you get the store open, baby?"

"No... and if you haven't left to go Christmas shopping, wait for me. I'm coming with you."

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1 Comment

Shania Ardiel
Shania Ardiel
Nov 30, 2020

Absolutely beautiful piece

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