The chain-store you were employed at made so many bad decisions that you pictured board meetings full of cross-eyed and drooling executives, giving power-point presentations that were actually crude finger-paintings rendered in their own feces.
And it was there, at the end of things, that you met Ricky. He first showed up wearing faded acid-washed jeans and neon blue cowboy boots, with fluffed and teased hair pulled into a pony-tail. He walked right up to you, stationed in the cafe slinging shit coffee and stale snacks for every third customer that didn’t ask where the nearest Starbucks was.
Standing in front of your register he pleaded into a giant mobile phone.
“Hello? Hello? I swear if the weather turns south this damn thing just goes kaput.”
In this act, he looked like a failed country heart-throb purged from Nashville circa 1991, three parts Ichabod Crane to one part Billy Ray Cyrus.
“Excuse me, sir, but you got a place I could plug this damn thing in back there?” he asked. “I got some business I need to sort out on this hunk of junk, and it just went and dogged out on me.”
“Sure, no problem.” This was a phrase you used multiple times a day, trapped in a ghost town mall filled with bare drywall. The coffee shop was the lowest level within the hierarchy of the store’s dwindling skeleton crew. You were put there because they wanted you to leave, not deeming you worthy of sticking around for the meager severance package that everyone knew was coming.
The only co-worker who bothered talking to you was the guy from the music department, who broke store code by playing heavy metal on the overhead. But, there was Ricky, who would come in with his phone and have long conversations littered with random business jargon and silver-tongued negotiations.
“This is ground floor I’m offering here, Randall. And I just happen to be offering you the honey spot in all of this. You read them numbers? Sweet as cake, baby. Sweet as cake.”
On these calls, he carried a folksy charm and confidence. But between the calls he would look around the cafe nervously, getting up to pace while carrying a worried look. He would sit back down, and stare at his phone planted like a monument on the table. He would then pick the device back up, this time with a weariness.
“Hey, baby. You sleeping? Ah, you shouldn’t nap so much. How you feeling today?”
He would wait for answers within these exchanges like a man walking a tightrope, his expressions changing from anxiety to relief within seconds.
“I just got off the horn with Randall. I’m telling ya’, he’s as tight-assed as they come, but you’d think I was trying to sell him on bricks of shit. I know. I’ve pulled in harder cases before. You take care now. I miss you too, baby. How much? Like a man in need of savin’.”
He would hang up, let out a long breath of air and sit with hands and elbows propping up his brow, his eyes closed, twitching in place as if electrical currents were sending tremors through his body.
You found yourself anticipating these visits. He never ordered anything, just setting up camp in the corner, pouring himself a glass of ice water. His phone never rang, but he’d eye it for long pauses as if he was sensing it to spring to life. Eventually, his patience would give out, and he’d pick it up and hammer in a call. Suddenly he would beam with new blood, taking clients through the various virtues of what he was offering, the benefits weighed against the pros and cons.
But towards the tail end of his second week, more and more his eyes would flicker with the pain of recognition that he wasn’t going to land this one. After such a call he wandered up to the counter, eyeing the daily specials on the lunch boards.
“Man, I’ll tell you what. They say it’s a rough go out there, but that ain’t hardly the half of it. I just spent the last week getting strapped over the barrel only to end up with squat to show for it. Any of these sandwiches any damn good?”
“In a pinch, they aren’t too bad. But nothing you would want to write home about.”
“Those the real prices? What the hell is an aioli?” When he pronounced aioli, he butchered it horribly, with a sour look like he just took in crop-dusting of fresh methane.
“It’s just a fancy word for seasoned mayonnaise.”
“Now why can’t they just say that? Why they have to put on airs just to sell a damn sandwich? I don’t mean to talk down on your place of employment, and I’m sure you had nothing to do this aioli business. But goddamn there’s a bunch of stupid shit in this world I’m never gonna understand.”
He looked dead tired like he was just about to collapse in place.
“I’m sorry for my use of language, partner. I’ve just had one hell of a week, and I’m dreading having to call my lady-friend with the shit news. Speaking of, you mind charging this thing for me?” He handed over his phone. “It’s just about bone dry on juice.”
“Sure. No problem. No problem at all.”
For the first time in what felt like years, you meant it, and once he sat back at his table, you slipped him a roast beef sandwich, some chips, and a Dr. Pepper. When you put the food down, he grinned up at you wildly.
“Well, I’ll be. A gesture fit for an angel.”
He ate like a man who stumbled on food after nearly starving in the wilderness. Looking at his gaunt frame and pale skin you wondered how long it had been since he’d actually taken the time to eat. Once he finished, he thanked you and asked for his phone back. He reached out for a handshake and asked your name. Usually, you lied to customers about it, but this time you gave it up. As you shook his hand, he looked deep into your eyes with a warmth that felt so pure you almost had to look away. “Ricky, the name’s Ricky,” he said. “Always good to meet a new friend.”
He went back and sat at his phone, trying to muster up the nerve to call and inform on his failure. “Hey honey, it’s me. Oh, I’ve been doing right rotten. Yeah, in all his divine wisdom Randall is taking a pass. Well, there is no cure for stupid, so they say. Just trying to do best as a breadwinner. Now speaking of breadwinner, this fella in the cafe I’m working out of gave me one of the best damn sandwiches I’ve ever had. That’s right. Been working out of a fancy cafe since I got here, in the biggest goddamn mall I’ve ever laid eyes on. God, I wish you were here to see it.”
You were wiping down tables, taking in Ricky’s conversation when the music department guy walked in on his way for a coffee refill.
“Checking out Mr. Headcase Chatterbox over there?”
You found yourself feeling defensive. “Come on man, he’s OK.”
“OK, huh? This is what happens when you geezers shut out technology.” The music department guy was only eight years younger than you but fully immersed in new social mediums, while you stubbornly paid your monthly phone bill for a landline. “When was the last time you saw anybody use one of those things, outside of an episode of Miami Vice?”
You wouldn’t see Ricky again until the home office delivered the news to liquidate inventory before closing the doors for good. Bargain bin shoppers descended like a biblical mob of locusts. Ricky showed up the second to last day of business, with a middle-aged woman that might have been his mother, but just as easily could have been a paid handler. He had gained about twenty pounds, his hair cropped short and uneven. He was wearing purple sweatpants and a stained t-shirt sporting the main alien character from the tv series “Alf.”
Shifting through the store with his companion, he stared at the racks of priced-to-move items like he was on the terrain of a distant world, weaving through the throng of shoppers with heavily medicated eyes, silently mouthing an unknown language. You tried to remember the Ricky from before, immersed in conversations through an archaic phone. You tried to remember you and Ricky, right before the end of things.