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We have the whole afternoon offno drills, no guard duty, no practice, no parades. Free. So Ryan and me, we decide to get lunch at the convenience store and then walk around townmaybe see a movie or take the bus up to the King of Prussia Mall.
We're not even fifty paces from the Academy's front gate, and already Ryan's telling me how he's got to put in extra time on Sunday at the library so he can ace his American history test. Well, I'm in that class and I have that same test, but you won't find me in the library on Sunday. No way. I'll be shooting hoops in the gym or trying to find some poor plebe who'll stand guard for me on Monday so I can smuggle in some cigarettes from Paulie the janitor. Paulie's leaving after next week, and that's a problem for me, see, 'cause I've built up quite a good business among the cadets; some of them'll pay me big bucks for a carton of Marlboros. It's my one little rebellion against the good ol' Valley Forge Military Academy, or the V, as we like to call it. Everything else, I pretty much go along. But no Paulieno contraband. Not sure what my plan is after he leaves. I may have to shut things down until I can find another supplier.
Anyway, I'm thinking about this, and Ryan's rattling on about how he needs to score at least a 95 on this test to keep his GPA above a 3.8. Yeah, that's righta three-eight . . . as in weight of the world (which is what he always looks like he's carrying before the end of the semester and that report card gets mailed home to Papa Sweeney); as in hate to tell you, Ry, in two years it won't matter a lick what you get on this test or on your report card, and in the meantime, you could be enjoying your life a whole lot more. But, whatever. Back home in Springfield, I'd spent enough time around his old man to know that imperfection was not an option for Ryan. So I try to listen as he rattles off his Sunday study schedule, figuring it's the least I can do for my best friend.
We get to the convenience store around one-thirty and go right to the deli, hungry for anything that doesn't taste like it's been made for a military-school cafeteria. We place our order at the sandwich counter, and kind of at the same time, we notice the girl behind the register up front. Actually, what I notice firstand I'm pretty sure I can speak for Ryan here, toois her shirt: a tight blue T-shirt with the gypsy lovers in bold red print across her chest, the S letters in the shape of snakes. Everyone else in the place is wearing these dull maroon-collared jobs, little plastic name tags pinned over their hearts. So I figure she's either the store manager or the resident rebel (and since she's looking way too young to be manager material, I'm betting the second). She's hot all right. A sight for sore eyes, especially if your eyes are used to looking at textbooks and military cadets.
I decide I need a better angle. I go behind the snack island and find a good spot between the potato chips and the rows of different-flavored Gatorades, and as I'm walking around the end of the display, I come face to face with Ryan. He pretends he's just looking through the snacks, too, but heyeven shy guys like Ryan have eyes. I poke him and tilt my head toward the front counter. "Nice, huh?"
Ryan turns red and shrugs. The girl at the sandwich counter calls us back for our orders, and then she's yelling something in Spanish that makes Gypsyher dark eyes dancing and her perfect mouth stretched openlaugh out loud. I glance over at Ryan, who is still blushing and seems unable to move his feet. I grab his arm and we go over to get our lunches, then up to the front, where Gypsy waits to ring us up.
"Hey there, soldiers," she says, flicking her hair off her shoulder and squaring up to face us. "And did we find everything we were looking for today?" Her almond-shaped eyes meet mine directly, not flinching, no hint of shyness.
"Actually . . ." I hesitate, pretending to consider one of the long-stemmed roses in the jar next to the register. I weigh my risk-benefit carefully: Paulie's leaving and I need a new source. Everyone always says I look at least eighteen. The older guy behind the counter (he must be the manager) has moved toward the back. I decide to try: "Carton of Marlboros, please."
She studies me carefully while her hands place our sandwiches in a bag. Behind me, Ryan whispers his warning, but I ignore it. Gypsy's eyes shift to Ryan and she smiles slightly, giving him the once-over. She moves to the other register for a minute, opens the drawer for some change, glances to see if the older guy is still close by. Then she comes back.
"You can get yourself in trouble asking for things that you shouldn't," she whispers, handing me the bag and my change. She looks again at Ryan, who still seems frozen. "You'd better go eat now," she says, "before he falls over."
"Good idea," I say, thankful that she didn't embarrass me by asking for ID.
I pick up the bag, and as I turn to leave, Gypsy takes one of the long-stemmed roses, leans as far as she can over the counterand hands it to Ryan.
They come in through the side door, walk right over to my counter. The tall one, he is good-looking but a little stiff and serious. His friend is more relaxednot quite as handsome, but cute enough. These military types, they are polite: "One turkey and tomato on wheat with extra mayo; one ham and Swiss on rye, lettuce, brown mustard . . . and could I, please, on that . . . could I get an extra slice of cheese . . . Great . . . Thanks." (I think at the Academy they must do drills for their manners, too.) So I take down the bread and the knife, I start slicing and slapping on the mayo, the mustard, the cheese. But when I look up to ask if they want onions or peppers (the manager, Frank, he gets angry if we don't ask because it's an extra twenty cents for each), they are gone.
I take a sideways step so I can see between the bins of plastic forks and spoons. . . . Ah, yes, there they are! Two crew cuts and crisp white shirts circling the little snack island in the middle of the store, pretending to pick out their chips and their drinks. But of course, I know what they are really doing: they are looking at Carmen. I see them watching her stack the shelves with cigarettes, flicking her black hair over her shoulders and laughing at something our manager, Fat Frank, is saying.
I go back to making sandwiches, smiling to myself because this is what happens all the time. It is like watching a movie you have already seen before: you know some of the lines and most of the scenes, but still you watch to see what happens. This is because Carmen is the magnet to which guys are drawn like so many pieces of steel. It doesn't matter if they want it to be that way or not. They are drawn. Like bears to honey. Like thirsty travelers to water. Like addicts to a fix. One glance and boomthey are hooked!
I wrap the sandwiches, put them on the counter for pickup. "Hey, you two soldados! Put your eyes back into your heads and come get your lunch!" but I say that last part in Spanish, and Carmen hears me and laughs, and I think she has alreadya girl with eyes in back of her headchecked out both of them. When they go to pay, she flirts with the shorter blond one, and while Frank is not looking, I see her card-dealing trickster hands slip something into his bag. I can see, too, that the tall, serious one, he has already put one foot in her snare.
"Rich college kids. Military cadets. Soccer mommies. And a few CPAs who always count their changethat's who your customers will be," the manager, Mr. Ted, told Maggie and me when we were being switched over to the Valley Forge store. "Not like heremen with hard hats and dust on their shoes and little kids saving their dimes for bubble gum," he said, erasing our names from the blackboard in his office. "But you'll do all right there, you two." He hands me my check, smiling at the snake tattoo on my wrist. "No. I don't worry about you."
And now we are two weeks at the Quikmart Valley Forge, and already I can tell you who goes to Villanova (collared shirts, flip-flopsthe expensive kind) and who goes to Haverford or Swarthmore (Birkenstocks, faded jeans, Vegan wrap to go, please). The accountants have the best silk ties and the nicest watches, and they do count their change, ¡ay bendito! every penny. The mommies in minivans are very tan and always in a hurry. Mostly, they don't even look at me, just jabbering away on their cell phones to the nanny or the husband at the airport and shoving the twenty at me like maybe they have so many they need to get rid of this one quick.
Our new manager, Mr. Frank, he tells us the military academy is only a half mile away, but during our first few shifts, we don't see a single cadet. Then today these two crew cuts come in through the side door looking like naughty puppies who just escaped the leash.
"Always in pairs," Mr. Frank tells me as we restock the shelves above the counter with cigarettes. "It's a rule. Can't leave campus alone unless they get special permission."
I watch them, the two cadets, and I'm thinking they are both kind of cute in their own way, and I'm also thinking that once you are in the military, maybe you always walk a little bit stiff like they do, like there is some invisible drillmaster in your head who counts out one-two, one-two, left-right, left-right, even when you are in khakis and buying hoagies at the deli. The taller one, he reminds me a little of Maggie's brother Raúl: dark and serious and a little skinny, but good-looking. He gives Maggie his order, and I see his hands opening and closing like he's not surelike maybe it's some kind of test and he's thinking something bad will happen if he gets it wrong.
His friend is blond, not so nervous. He thinks I don't see when he goes behind the drink-and-snack display to get a better view of me. But I do see and so does Maggie: "Hey, you two soldados!" she says. "¡Pongan los ojos en sus cabezas y tomen su comida!" And those two Anglos, of course they don't know what Maggie says to them, and this is a good laugh between us.
And then here comes the blond one with the sandwiches and his money and his nice smile all ready. So of course I am not surprised when he asks me for smokes. And of course I know that he knows we have video in the store and that he is not eighteen, and there is no way I can let him buy cigarettes with my manager close by putting coins in the safe and filing receipts and those cameras pointed down at the counter. So the blond crew cut and me, we are passing this information back and forth with our eyes when the taller one with the handsome face and nervous hands leans in from behind. "Will, man, don't make her do that," I hear him whisper. "She gives you cigarettes, she gets fired."
Now I am laughing inside because of two things: (1) I can get this boy a hundred cigarettes anytime, and (2) the dark, serious one thinks he's protecting me.
Mr. Frank is still busy with some receipts and I don't think he's really watching us. Just in case, I pretend to make change at the other register, but my hands (that can do a hundred card tricks and make a quarter disappear), my hands do what is needed where the cameras can't see. The whole time, I feel the tall one's eyes on me.
I turn around and give the blond his change and I don't know whymaybe I am thinking of Maggie's brother Raúl, who has always been nice to meI hand the tall one a rose. I laugh when his handsome face turns as red as the flower in his hand. But then my wrist itches and I know I will see this dark boy again.