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The Hammock Coast

On a beautiful sunny Saturday morning in Litchfield, South Carolina, a federally recognized Retirement Zone on the Hammock Coast of Georgetown County, the seagulls wheeled over the Bi Lo parking lot, waiting for Jo to take her seat at the bench under the live oak trees, as she did every morning, weather permitting. There, she sipped coffee from a stainless steel travel cup and threw crusts of bread and raw vegetable scraps which showed up sharply on the fresh blacktop that still smelled of kerosene. Large white gulls descended around her, screaming. The pecking order that was established during these feeding frenzies fascinated Jo. It was one of the highlights of her morning routine.

Mark Barbara pulled his yellow electric truck into the fire lane and rolled down the strip mall until he found what he was looking for, the Litchfield Bookstore, which had a flying eagle Post Office decal on the glass doors. There was a tiny post office desk at the back, across from the coffee bar, and the line was never very long compared to the main post office. Leaving the car keys in the ignition, engine running next to silent, Mark swung his massive legs out of the truck and onto the concrete walkway where two black cafe tables and several wicker seats were set up every morning by the young man who worked inside.

From Jo’s vantage point in the small green space sprouting from the middle of the parking lot, she muttered to herself that that Mark Barbara was going to run someone over if he kept driving like that. A gull one head taller than the juvenile competing for the same whole wheat crust raised his head to the sky and cried repeatedly. Then he lowered his beak to the ground, spread his wings, and charged, chasing the younger bird away. There was a great commotion of squawking and beating of wings and Jo laughed out loud, clapping her hands and rocking back and forth, a soothing movement she had always enjoyed. She continued to rock as Mark Barbara waddled his way into the store clutching an envelope in his massive hand, white polo shirt stretched tight across his wide, thick back. “Cee Pee,” she whispered. Chauvinist Pig. CP Mark Barbara nearly filled the swinging glass door frame as he pushed his way inside.

* * *

Joey looked up from his book when the bell hanging in front of the door tinkled. It was a thoughtless action that provoked a half second recognition. There were two doors, right next to each other at the front of the store. Customers entering on the left went towards the book shelves. Customers on the right generally headed towards the post office desk, or the cafe. Either way, he was required to put down his book and wait to see if he could be of service. It had been a slow, steady morning so far, and he’d been able to establish a reading groove, knocking off the short thriller novel chapters in-between customer spurts. All things considered, it was an ideal way to get through a Saturday shift. If he didn’t finish the book by 6:00, when he and the owners would close the store, he’d go sit out in the park on Jo’s bench and crank out the last chapters in the final hours of golden sunlight before walking to Gilligan’s for a sandwich. Then, if he was feeling up to it, he might go down to the boardwalk and have a drink at the Mizzenmast and try to flirt with the new bartender there who he knew was taking a year off from College of Charleston and living in her parent’s pool house while she saved money. Joey had found this out last Saturday night when he and Roger were throwing darts. Roger was about 40, a bachelor, and the closest thing Joey had to a friend in town.

Joey was pushing 30 himself, had too much college, not many job prospects, and found himself increasingly rooted to the low impact lifestyle that he had found in Litchfield. He lived in a decent shoebox igloo above the store, and he had come to a suitable agreement with the owners who were also his employers. His rent was affordable in return for being available to the older owner’s needs. They did not have children, so the running joke was Joey Grandson For Hire. He lifted heavy things and climbed on ladders and did some preventative maintenance that the owners themselves would have just as soon over-paid someone else to do in their younger years, before the Great Frugalization. Joey had his privacy, and the owners gave him his space when he was off the clock. Another sweet perk was being able to order books at cost, so long as he told the owners his thoughts on them afterwards.

Joey read quite a lot, actually. Sometimes finishing a fun book in a single day. Often finishing serious books within a week. It had been his favorite thing about graduate school—the sustained application of reading. College friends who had gone on to law school told him he should too, that he’d be good at it, because there was just so much to read—you could never get out from underneath it—and with his stamina it would be an achievable thing to do. But even if he would be good at it, would he really want to be a lawyer? If he was going to be an unproductive member of society, better to be living near the beach with a brainless job and plenty of time to read fiction, than living under his desk with a stressful job and all the money in the world but not time to spend it. He teased his parents who lived in Massachusetts that he was retiring while he was still young and would work when he was in heaven, so firmly was his belief in God.

Joey watched Mark Barbara, red-faced, huffing, walk purposefully towards the back of the store clutching an envelope in his chubby hand. Standing up, Joey said, “How can I help you?” Just as Mr. Barbara stopped in front of the Post Office counter and threw his envelope onto the stainless steel scale.

“First Class and don’t bother asking me all your stupid questions. Cheapest rate only. I don’t need the goddamn government taking any more of my goddamn money.” His large head, cropped short affecting a military or law enforcement style was already beginning to perspire.

Without another word, Joey reached into his drawer and peeled a single first class stamp off a roll and placed it on the upper right-hand corner of the envelop, which he noticed was addressed to an IRS building in Texas.

“How much is that going to cost me? Ten dollars?”

“Fifty cents,” Joey said, hoping to complete the transaction as quickly as possible.

“Fifty cents! What, did it go up again?” Mr. Barbara’s face was glowing with emotion. His eyes popping right out of their sockets, the little busted capillaries in his cheeks pulsing dark purple.

“The rate went up last week,” Joey said, doing his best to remain unrilled. “It’s been all over the news, in the papers…”

“I’ll tell ya,” Mr. Barbara said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a sweaty fistful of change which he splashed all over the counter, along with a crushed peppermint, a small key, and some pocket lint. Carefully, he placed a fingertip on one coin at a time and slid them towards Joey. The heat of his breath stank of cigarette smoke. “The way this government rakes us across the coals every chance they get.”

Joey remained silent, not taking the bait, eyeing the coins as they were lined up in a row: quarter, dime, nickel, nickel, penny, penny, penny, penny.

Mark Barbara swept his remaining change into his hand and Joey watched, somewhat incredulously, as he turned on his heel and walked away, saying, “You can just keep your receipt, thank you very much!”

“Sir!” he called, then a second time, louder, “Sir!” Mark Barbara turned around.

“You’re short a penny, sir.”

Barbara opened his mouth wide as if to say something, then closed his lips, like a fish blowing bubbles.

“What did you say?”

“It’s fifty cents for postage. I need another penny.”

“I gave you fifty cents right there. I counted it out in front of you.”

Now Joey was having a hard time with it. He knew Mr Barbara was provoking him intentionally, but he also knew he couldn’t let him get away with this outrageously immature entitlement behavior he had come to loathe in so many of the Boomer Class customers.

“Sir, as you can see, I’m sorry, but as you can see, there’s only forty-nine cents on the counter.” He could feel his blood pressure rising, his heart, his shorter breath, the adrenaline bomb that went off deep in his ear canals. Mark Barbara was saying something. Loudly saying something—“Give me lip? I’ll report you to the authorities!”

“Go right ahead!” Joey snapped back. “My name is Joey Mazzi. M-A-Z-Z-I. But it won’t do you any good, because I’m not a postal employee.”

Barbara was leaning in over the counter, over his short change. He turned towards the door, took a few steps, then came back. Joey could see he had him now. He was on the verge of popping his total temper. “What do you mean you’re not a postal employee! You work at a Post Office!”

“I do not, sir. I work for Tom and Vicki Warner, the store owners, who have a contract to sell postage services. I’m not a postal employee—I don’t get a government check, or a government pension, and the reason postage went up is to pay for people your age that do. I don’t give two shits whether you report me. Go Right Ahead. But you still owe one cent. Sir.”

“I want to talk to your owners!”

“Be my guest. They’ll be back after lunch.”

“I don’t need this shit from you.”

“That makes two of us.”

Mark Barbara, bright red in the face, clenched his handful of change and shook his hand in the air. “Here’s your fucking penny, you little shit!” he yelled, throwing the coins across the counter at Joey, some of them hitting him in the chest like weak buck shot. That about sent Joey over the edge, but he forced himself to remain calm and just smiled as wide as he could.

“Have a nice day, sir,” he said in as even a tone as he could muster, not moving an inch.

As Mark Barbara stormed out of the store, he yelled over his shoulder, “And you can tell your boss that they lost a customer for life because of your bad attitude! And you can tell them to expect a call from the Better Business Bureau!” And with that, he jerked open the door, nearly knocking the little brass bell of its hinge, and plopped himself in his truck so violently, the cab rocked back and forth on it suspension. Flooring the accelerator, Barbara peeled off into the parking lot, tires squealing, and drove straight towards the pack of gulls eating Jo’s stale bread.

Joey watched this from behind the counter, through the floor to ceiling windows at the front of the store. As the gulls exploded in different directions, screaming, flapping, ducking under the front fender, Jo stood up from her bench and yelled something.

Inside the store, Bonnie, a woman a generation older than Joey who worked the book side, came over to Joey’s counter. Mouth open wide, her brown eyes expressive and framed by perfectly straight Scandinavian blonde hair, she said, “What the hell was up with that guy? I couldn’t believe it. What a prick!”

“Oh my God,” Joey said, sighing.

“Are you okay, honey?”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine. My blood was boiling.”

“Oh my Gawd, if I had a gun, I would have shot him right in the ass! What a piece of work. What was wrong with him?”

“Beats me. Retired Boomer. Thinks he’s special.”

“I don’t even understand how people can act like that. And look at Jo out there—he could have run her right over!”

“Is she all right?” Joey said, wiping the back of his head and squinting out through the window.

“Oh yeah, she’s fine,” Bonnie said, spinning towards the cafe so that her hair twirled around her head like a flapper dress. “I’m having a cappuccino. You want something, honey?”

“I’m good. Thanks though.”

“I wouldn’t worry about Tom and Vicki. I’ll tell them what happened. You didn’t do anything wrong, sweetie.”

“Thanks, Bon. Appreciate it.” Kneeling, Joey bent over to retrieve the coins from the floor and finished punching the transaction into the computer touch-screen.

One Comment

  1. rob wrote:

    wowoow, what a way to capture rage and bend it to your creation.

    Friday, April 9, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

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