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Jess Walter

The Financial Lives Of the Poets

© 2009

For Anne, always

Poets have to dream, and dreaming in America is no cinch.

– SAUL BELLOW

CHAPTER 1

Another 7/11

– HERE THEY ARE AGAIN-the bent boys, baked

and buzzed boys, wasted, red-eyed, dry-mouth

high boys, coursing narrow bright aisles

hunting food as fried as they are, twitchy

hands wadding bills they spill

on the counter, so pleased and so

proud, as if they’re the very

inventors of stoned-

And behind the counter, the ever-patient Rahjiv makes half-lidded eye contact with me as he rings up another patchouli-foul giggler-Reese’s Pieces, Pic-6 Lotto, Red Bull and a cheddar-jack tacquito-Rahjiv probably thinking: These kids, eh Matt-or maybe not, because Rahjiv doesn’t know my name and I don’t wear a nametag. I’m just the middle-aged guy who leaves my gunmetal sedan running when I come in after midnight. When I can’t sleep. And I’ve forgotten to get milk at a regular store. Milk for the kids’ cereal. In the morning. Before school.

The milk is like nine dollars a gallon.

For years, recent immigrants like Rahjiv have been a political Rorschach: see turban, think terrorist and you’re a Red ’Merican. Assume Indian neurosurgeon fluent in five languages, stuck serving morons at midnight for minimum wage, and you’re Blue, like me. Of course I have no more proof that Rahjiv was a doctor in Delhi than some Texas trucker does that he’s a bomber. Rahjiv may have jockeyed a 7/11 in India too for all we know-so impeccable is he with change, effortlessly plastic-bagging Hostess Sno Balls and Little Debbies, Power Bars and Mountain Dews-“No wait…dude. Chocolate milk! And pork rinds”-as yet another stoner reassesses the aisles-“And ooh, ooh! Cool Ranch Doritos!”

Whenever I come in here, I invariably think of my own boys, at home asleep in their beds, still a few years from such trouble (or do they already dream of midnight at the Slurpee machine?).

Two tattooed white kids in silk sweat suits step to the line behind me and I tense a little, double-pat my wallet. The fat one juggles a half-rack of malt-liquor forties while his partner rolls away to yell in his cell, “Chulo! Don’ do shit ’til we get there, yo.” The door closes behind the cell-phoned gangbanger and I’m finally at the front of this line with my milk-“Hey Rahjiv”-when something goes terribly wrong at the soda fountain and the clerk and I turn together, drawn by a hydroponic squeal from deep inside the cave of a blue hoody. A pierced, lank-haired skater, board strapped to his back, has spilled his 72-ounce Sprite and now believes it is…the funniest… fucking…thing…in the world, and Rahjiv nods wearily at me again, no doubt wishing he were back cutting craniums at Mumbai General. He casually swings my jug past the scanner.

Then he hands me my milk. For the boys. For their cereal. In the morning.

It’s like nine dollars a gallon.

I also think of my mother when I come in here. She was dying several years back and became obsessed with the terrorist attacks in New York. I hated that she should be so wracked with random anxieties as she wasted away, thumb jacking the morphine pump like it could save her life-it couldn’t-her fear of dying manifested as a fear of things she had no reason to fear anymore: random crime, global warming…and most of all, terrorists on airplanes. “Matt?” she asked right before she died, “Do you think there will be another 7/11?” I thought about correcting her, but I just said, “No, Mom, there won’t be any more 7/11s.”

“Nice slippers, yo,” says the cell-phone banger when I come outside with my milk. He’s twenty or so, in a sagging shark-colored tracksuit, black hair combed straight over his ears, elaborate tattoo rising out of his shirt at the base of his neck. And right out in the open, in front of this convenience store, he conveniently offers me a hit on a glass blunt, a little marijuana pipe shaped like a cigarette. I wave it off, but sort of wish I hadn’t-it’s been at least fifteen years, but I didn’t just spring from some relaxed-waisted suburbia with a Stoli martini in hand; I had my moments. In college they used to call me Weedeater because I devoured those Acapulco Gold joints, incense burning, black light on the walls, Pink Floyd thrumming down the dorm floor-

Oh, and they’re not technically “slippers,” but a casual loafer I got at the Nordstrom Rack with a gift certificate when I returned a cardigan that made me look like my grandfather. Of course I don’t tell the stoned kid that, I just smile and say, “No thanks,” but then I pause to get a closer look, instead of continuing on to my car. Maybe I’m just curious about this clever pipe or maybe it’s the smell of the weed or maybe it’s just this swiveling looseness I’m feeling, but I’m still in mid-pause when the fatter white gangster joins us, flat-brimmed ball cap worn sidesaddle, and now there are three of us standing in a little semicircle, as if waiting for a tee time.

“Hey,” says the one with the neck tattoo and the blunt, “dude here can give us a ride to the party.”

And I’m about to say I can’t give them a ride because I’ve got to get home (and they look mildly dangerous) when fat-in-the-hat says, “Thanks, man,” like he’s surprised I’d be so cool and suddenly I want to be that cool. And then the fat kid looks down at my hands, and laughs.

“Damn, man. Why you buy your milk here? Shit’s like nine dollars a gallon.”

The clouds are low, like a drop ceiling suffused with light from the city. They slide silently overhead. And two dope-smoking bangers in tracksuits climb into my car.

I read once that we can only fear what we’re already afraid of; that our deepest fears are the memory of some earlier, unbearable fear. If that’s true, then maybe it’s a good thing my mother never lived to see another 7/11.

“This a nice ride.”

“Thanks.”

“Seats heated?”

“Mmm.”

“Feels funny. Like I pissed my pants.”

“You pro’ly did piss your pants, yo.”

“I’ll turn it down.”

“What kind-a-car is this?”

“Nissan. Maxima.”

“How much ’at set you back?”

“Oh. Not much.”

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