The Downside of Town

My store is in a part of Chinatown that has so far avoided the magic wand of urban renewal.  Take that to mean my section of Chinatown is so undesirable, that even if it were redeveloped, probably no one would want to live here anyway.

I opened this place more that 40 years ago.  Thank goodness most of my clientele have been with me since before this area went even further downhill.  Those who’ve known me for many years, know that my product is top quality.  There is no shop like mine, even in the fancified parts of Chinatown.  My customers are loyal, as are many of their descendents.

I could tell by the sound of the bell above the door that this particular customer was not his usual self.  He barely acknowledged me when I welcomed him.  When he looked at me, his eyes were not sad, but they were serious, heavy.  I’d known him for many years, he was always pleasant.  He’d never looked like this before. I felt uneasy.

“Is this fresh?” he asked, pointing into the case.

“Yes, just in today,” I said.

“Two pounds.”  Even his index finger, the way it tapped against the glass, made me nervous.

“Of course,” I said.  “Would you like anything else?”

He looked at me, said nothing, returned his gaze to the case and continued down the counter, staring hard through the glass at the offerings.

I felt I’d better get busy cutting up and packaging his order, just in case he suddenly decided to leave and I didn’t have it ready.  I didn’t want to guess what he might do if I slowed him down.

While I was quickly slicing and trying not to lose a finger, then wrapping, I kept one eye and both ears on him, just in case he wanted something else.  I sensed I’d better be ready to jump to.

“And this?” he said.

“Yesterday.  As you can see, the color is good.”

He stared at me a second longer than was comfortable.  “Hmmm,” he said, moving on.  “Then not really.”

I swallowed.  This was definitely not him.  And anything just in yesterday, iced properly, really was fresh.

I laid his package on top the glass case.  Wiping my bloody hands on my apron, again I asked him if he needed anything else.

He came back and stood in front of me.  The silence weighed on the room, as if the ceiling were lowering, compressing the space.

“How much?” he asked, his voice toneless.

I collected the money.  My hand trembled as I laid his change on the glass case top.

He picked up the money, methodically placing it in his wallet.  Sliding his package off the counter, he grasped it with a veined, huge hand and walked to the door.

“Good evening,” I said, trying to keep my voice from quavering.

The little bell rung tension through the air.  He turned and looked me in the eye, halfway out the door, breathing slowly, evenly.

“You know,” he said, “why I come here.”  He paused.

I nodded, not actually understanding the question, or even if it were a question at all. And if it were a question, whether I should answer it.

“Tonight, as always, you gave me good service.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “I value your business.”

“Otherwise,” he ran his gaze around the shop, then returned his focus to me, “you know I might have killed you.”

I think that’s what he said.  My brain stopped functioning.  I’m almost certain those were his words.

He nodded to me and stepped out onto the sidewalk.  Closing the door quietly behind him, he disappeared.

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