She was eating a Mars bar this time, and seemed more than a little distracted.
"Weren’t you in here earlier?"
"Yeah… sort of."
"You were with that cookie guy, right?"
"You know him?"
"A little," he began to feel uncomfortable, "why?"
"That’s the same guy that’s down here playing on the pickle bucket, right?"
"And you know him?"
"He’s my roommate," Jason said with a sigh, "I’ve known him since high school and, well… he has trouble holding down respectable employment."
"You don’t say."
"So, I’ve been letting him crash with me, so he can continue his… artistic pursuits."
"I suppose you’d have to call it art," she looked down at the counter yet again, what seemed like the umpteenth time. She finally looked up and directly at him, her bright eyes causing his blood to suddenly run cold.
"Hey, I’m sorry, but do you mind if I take this?"
She held up the cell phone she’d been hiding under the counter, and had been periodically checking the entire time.
"Uh…no," he replied, noting that his face was growing warm even as his veins turned to ice, "No, go ahead."
She immediately began ringing up his purchase (three loaves of bread), sending rapid text messages on her phone, and continuing the conversation with him…all at the same time. Jason couldn’t help but feel a little impressed.
"Anyway, that guy, your roommate… he’s a little north of normal, ain’t he? I mean, not to say I think your friend is a jerk or anything, but anyone that sits in downtown and plays the spoons probably isn’t very normal."
"Uh-huh…" Jason was still watching the woman fly through processing the transaction.
"Sorry, I gotta hard key this," she said, still looking at her phone, "The buy three get one thing isn’t going through."
The fingers on her right hand began flying over the keypad at the cash register as effortlessly as her left hand was sending text messages.
"Seems like every special deal like this falls apart in the software," she muttered, "I tried calling the Help-less Center, but those dorks probably couldn’t fix a Lego set."
"You… really don’t like the Help Center?" Jason asked, almost hurt.
"They’re just not very efficient, is all."
"Isn’t there anyone you like at the Help Center?" he ventured, regretting it immediately, "Er, I mean… y’know, someone who always calls and gets it right, or at least is nice to talk to when everything falls apart?"
"There’s been one guy who’s been calling lately," she responded with a glint of mischief in her eye, "I figure he’s stalking me through the phone or something."
"Yeah!" Jason bellowed, laughing too loud and too long, "You know those tech support guys: all useless shut-ins and basement dwellers, pounding Red Bull and, and…"
"Sure!" he took the suggestion gladly, "That, too! Really lame guys, probably in love with…video games, and comic books, and…"
"That’s enough, Bread Boy," she grinned as the receipt printed. She sent yet another text message and put the phone down, handing Jason his bag, "On your way, now."
"Oh, okay," Jason muttered, "Thanks, Ginger."
"I don’t know if I’m comfortable being on a first name basis with you."
"But…" he sputtered, "You’ve got a name tag! On the vest! What… what else should I call you? I…"
"I was joking, man," she grinned again, causing him to blush even more, "Now get home and keep that crazy roommate of yours off the street."
Jason fairly stumbled to the door. His legs felt like a strange combination of concrete and jell-o, both at the same time. As he staggered by a display of eyebrow pencils and foundation makeup, Ginger called out, unafraid of rousing her manager from his mid-afternoon office nap.
"Hey! Can I have your phone number?"
Jason made a noise that sounded something like "Phwaaa?" and slowly turned to see her walking towards him. It was at this moment that he cursed himself for not being more creative, because all he could think of was himself as Ulysses and her playing the hip-swaying siren.
"You know…" she gave him a wink through Cleopatra eyeliner, "Just in case the PINpad breaks or something. It’d be nice to have a direct hotline."
Jason immediately felt his mouth get dry, his eyes start to itch, and his stomach do its best Mary Lou Retton. He took a step to steady himself, but accidentally stepped on the doormat, causing the door to swing open with a loud "BING." This startled him so much that he lost footing again (something he would later blame on Ginger’s arresting eyes, but could probably be attributed to the tattered hem of his jeans) and stumbled out into the street, landing in a heap of bread and humanity at the feet of Marco Bastardo, pickle bucket maniac. Marco slipped the spoons he was currently playing into his breast pocket and helped his friend to his feet. Mortified, Jason scrambled his belongings together and beat a hasty retreat back to his apartment, less than a block away. Marco, after catching Ginger’s bemused expression in the shop window, shrugged and gave a bemused expression of his own.
"Well, you charmer."
Marco couldn’t resist a dig as he came back to the apartment, finding Jason sprawled on the couch, a pillow draped over his face like a death mask.
"I am failure."
"I am error," Marco responded, pulling a face, "Are we going to continue to make bad translation jokes, because I’m not brushed up on my Zero Wing."
"No, I mean it," Jason’s voice was still muffled by the pillow, "I am the very embodiment of failure. I’m like a Norse God, but the one who keeps striking out with the Valkyries or spilling all the mead."
"Yeah, you’d totally get kicked out of Valhalla," he smirked as he sat down on the couch next to his friend, "but so would I, probably."
"Loki wouldn’t want the competition," Jason groaned, finally pulling the pillow off his face, "Did you really have to set up shop outside the store while I went in there?"
"I didn’t have much else to do," Marco shrugged.
"You could have come in there with me!" Jason whined.
"I don’t like getting involved in your romantic sagas. I always wind up being blamed."
"That’s because it’s always your fault!" Jason shouted, leaping to his feet.
"Oh, name one time!" Marco did likewise.
"She was a smoker. I was watching out for your health."
"She was using you, man!"
"You just knew she was gonna mess you up, man. I mean, the name! You’re lucky she never asked you to kick a football."
"Forget it!" Jason stormed off into the small kitchen of the equally small apartment. He returned, chewing on a slice of bread.
"Jase," Marco appealed as Jason sat back down on the couch in a huff, "I want you to answer something for me."
"Okay… I want you to finish your snack and then answer me."
"Mmuh," it was more conciliatory than the last one.
"This is gonna suck, but think about it for a sec: did you ever, honestly, at any point think you would go the distance with those girls?"
Jason gave him a quizzical look, cheeks stuffed with bread.
"I meant relationship-wise."
"Ah," Jason nodded and resumed chewing.
"Yes, believe it or not, I’m trying to have a serious conversation."
"So, think about it," Marco leaned back and heard his back pop satisfactorily. Hours of slouching over a pickle bucket caused more than a few knots.
"You seem to have a pattern, pal: you get intrigued, you fall hard, but it never works out. Even the ones you actually get a date with always end up the same way. You give, and you give, but you never get anything back… and then you come home whining. I know you want me to pat you on the head and say you’re such a suffering, noble man… but you’re not. You’re playing a part just as much as those girls were."
"Gee, thanks," Jason grumbled, "Why are you telling me this now, anyway?"
"Because for once, I think you’ve made a good decision here. You actually found one that isn’t all ‘cool’ looking on the outside and shallower than a foot bath. And, I’m sorry to say, if you don’t make this happen… I just might."
Jason thought back to his conversation with Ginger and laughed.
"What’s so funny?"
"Oh, nothing," Jason shook his head, "Thanks for the talk… I guess. Is it weird that we can be all, y’know, deep?"
"As heterosexual Midwestern males? Probably."
"Are we ever going to be normal?"
"Normal is subjective, buddy," Marco kicked both his stocking feet up on a rickety coffee table that separated a television propped up on milk crates from a threadbare sofa, "but if you’re asking what I think you’re asking, then no. You shoulda known that when we got buddied up for that project way back when."
"Hey, I still maintain that our working trebuchet was the coolest part of that History bee."
"And that’s why we are who we are: two overweight dorks who didn’t make enough friends to get highfalutin’ jobs, sitting on the ugliest couch in the world and watching reruns of Dick Van Dyke. There are probably a million neck-bearded, fair-trade sipping, graphic tee wearing trend-junkies in that probably wish they were this ‘real.’"
"Please don’t start on another one of those, Marco."
"All right," he rolled his eyes and tousled his roommates’ shaggy hair, "but only because I like ya."
"You know, if I hadn’t known you your whole life," Jason propped his own feet up, "I’d swear you were just playing the whole ‘sagacious hipster’ thing."
"Yep, too bad," Marco smiled and turned the TV up, "I’ve been a sour cuss like this since I was twelve."
They watched TV for a few more hours, barely moving. Then, at around eight, Marco stood up and announced,
"All right. We’re going to Hattrix."
"What?!" Jason was physically jolted out of the rut he’d worn in the couch.
Marco looked down at him with an incredulous expression.
"You heard me. Hattrix. Let’s go."
"I don’t wanna."
"Come on!" Marco hauled him upright, "There’s nothing good on TV, and Hate Grenade is headlining tonight. You LOVE Hate Grenade!"
"I do love Hate Grenade," Jason sat back down, "but I can’t see them live, and I definitely can’t see them at Hattrix!"
"Because… look at me!"
"I try not to."
"Hattrix is hardcore, man," he sighed, "I’m just a pretender. I’m not even a periphery punker, I’m one of those honkies who digs the music and works in white collar. They’d eat me alive in there, or introduce me to what the bottom of a pair of Doc Martens look like."
"Or, you know," Marco walked into the bedroom as he talked, "They could be human beings like you and me, and if you don’t act like a complete putz they won’t even care."
"It’s really crusty there, though," Jason threw his eyes on the floor, "Really crusty."
"And you eat more bread than anyone I know," Marco said, re-emerging from the bedroom with a long black jacket over a Skelly t-shirt, "so you’ll fit right in. I mean, you’re plenty hardcore… you don’t cut the crusts off!"
"You know, I don’t make jokes about the food you eat," Jason said, stomping into the bedroom himself.
"That’s because nothing rhymes with…"
He then proceeded to make several over-the-top and very loud chewing and eating noises. Jason came back, having cast off his halfway decent clothes for clothes he hoped would help him blend in: a wrinkled white t-shirt and jeans, with an even more wrinkled blue flannel over it.
"Very ," Marco commented, "And I thought you weren’t going?"
"See? This is what I mean," he called after Jason as they both headed down the stairs and into the street, "You gotta stand up for yourself and tell me that you want to just sit at home and watch Sailor Moon all night!"
"I don’t watch Sailor Moon!"