She stares at the dollar bills as if she's never seen one before. Niki. That's the name on the yellow tag on her black uniform shirt. Now she looks at the cash register.
I'm in Dollar General, probably the shabbiest store in my town. It's a run-down dump with a pot-holed parking lot. Every now and then I stop in here for a Diet Coke on my way to work. Everything about Dollar General is cheap and sorry-looking, except the mini Coke cooler by the check-out lane, it's got the coldest pops in town, almost ice cold.
There's a depressing surrealism to Dollar General, with its fat people's poverty food, ugly clothing, disposable housewares. . .it's like a gag gift to the poor. . .a plastic dog poo for minimum wagers to step in.
I feel sinful, spending my $1.80 on the Diet Coke at Dollar General, with its fraudulent *bargains.* Dollar General is a remainders scavenger, and it's no friend to the poor, with higher-than-retail-average mark-ups on its shoddy merchandise. But, as I say, these Diet Cokes are almost ice cold, and anyway, I'm poor, myself, so. . .
Niki puts the dollar bills in the register, starts to close the drawer, stops. She smiles.
I wonder how many people I have not seen today, not seen this week, this month, this year, this lifetime? People all around. At work, in my neighborhood, in stores, the library, in cars driving past, on sidewalks and at bus stops. They are everywhere. People. Hundreds of them must circulate around me. Maybe thousands. I give them no notice. Technically, I do see them. But I see them as extras, like the background crowd in a movie scene. They are not central to the action of my life. They surround me, but mean nothing to me. They live and die, but the noise and stink of my last fart is of more interest to me. . .
And yet. . .
Every now and then one emerges from the background, from the haze of the nameless, faceless mass. . .
Such a one is Niki of Dollar General. . .
She smiles. She takes two dimes from the register, closes it.
What makes Niki shine out from ashy humanity? Her physical appearance? I must live among dozens of attractive women every day. Niki's been working here for several months, cashiering and stocking shelves. . .I see her maybe once a week or every ten days. . .I never speak to her except to thank her for scanning my Diet Coke. And yet from the first time I handed her two dollars, I sensed her extra-ordinary life force. Unlike the forest of human timber I pass through, it was clear she was prepared in the image of God. . .the Light of Life was in her.
She stares at the dimes as if she's never seen one before, and as if she's unsure of their purpose.
At first I thought she might be mildly *retarded,* as they used to say. But she's been working here long enough that even the *slow* would have mastered the details of the money exchange, by now.
"Your change, sir," she says, holding out the twenty cents.
No, she's no dummy, this Niki of Dollar General. I figured it out, her curious behavior, about the fourth or fifth time I saw her here:
She doesn't know how to act.
She doesn't pretend. There is nothing artificial about her. Unlike most of us, she lives, instead of acts. Thus she has the glow of God. She is alive.
I take the dimes. I grab the Diet Coke. I stand there. I cannot leave.
Most of us, by our mid-teens at the latest, fall into patterns of learned behavior. . .we mimic our peers, who mimic their role models. We act like we are living, when, in reality, we have given up our lives for scripts, programs, rituals, gestures, etc., etc., etc.
Niki does not seem surprised I am still standing here. For the person who is truly alive, anything can happen, therefore nothing is unexpected. A *normal* person, a person I take no note of, a dead person, a person acting as a cashier, would expect me to have left, by now. By my not following the script, that person would become alarmed, and ask if something is wrong. But Niki has a pleasant, peaceful expression on her face. I would like to reach across the counter and brush the hair from her forehead, to see if she has been sealed by God. . .but that cannot be done.
Another customer comes along. An old woman. I step aside. An old woman in a cheap ugly old dress. She's buying a magnifying glass and a box of envelopes. The dress is so ugly, faded flowers of blue, purple, red. She struggles with the zipper on her purse. "It won't open," she croaks. A horrible scene. Horrible and pathetic. My spirit is crying for leaving. I look away. The first thing my eyes land on are the *impulse items* displayed by the register. I see a rack of little red bottles. 5-Hour Energy. I feel exhausted, staring at them, the little red bottles of energy. I didn't sleep well last night. I dreamed for the first time in years. A disconcerting dream:
Hurry, I hear somebody shout. Then I am in a room, a white room, brightly lit, there is a bed with white sheets. A woman is on the bed. Fat and naked. We are kissing, but her mouth tastes like sand. Her nude body is not anatomically correct. The female anatomy has not been rendered correctly by the dream program. Her cunt is misshapen. I fuck her, anyway. It becomes a chore. I'd like to stop, but it is clear she does not want me to stop, so out of charity I keep on. And then, then her human head becomes the head of a baby hippopotamus. I am fucking a nude human female with a misshapen cunt who now has the head of a baby hippo. A smiling baby hippo. That is the dream which weakened my sleep.
It may be that the baby hippo head was not rendered correctly, either. I have never actually seen a baby hippo's head. But in the dream, I knew immediately and with absolute certainty that the human head had changed into a baby hippo's head. I remember thinking in the dream, while I was fucking that fat woman with the misshapen cunt, her head has become the head of a baby hippo. . .
I stop daydreaming the dream. I see again the miserable reality of Dollar General. The old woman in the ugly dress is gone. Niki is looking at me.
"Have you forgotten something, sir?" she asks.
I've been standing here long enough, now, for her to wonder about it.
"Uh. . .no. No, you know, actually, I was remembering something."
Such a pleasant, peaceful expression on her face. I yawn. Niki has the face of a lullaby.
The next customer approaches with a shopping basket full of *ready meals* from Hormel and Kraft.
The poor now eat as if they are on a journey to Mars. . .
It takes Niki a few minutes to scan the items, bag them, process the payment via some sort of poor person's food-only debit card. I still don't leave. Why don't I leave, I ask myself?
There's nowhere to go.
Niki stares at an Easy Mac Triple Cheese Cup. "Aren't these a blessing?" she remarks to the customer.
There's nowhere to go, and this is a nice final resting place. . .a place of peace, and good will.
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