“See anything you like?”
She said it with a wink. Something that married the desperation of poverty with the shiftlessness of youth relentlessly tugged at the corners of her mouth. You could call it a smile, the same way you could call a rail of coke a pick-me-up. My skin felt brittle and oily, my clothes too tight. Each second ticked by with an audible click. I try desperately not to look at her chest, or worse, directly at her face. A man more suave could probably have turned this into a pleasant flirtation, something to chuckle about, maybe an empty promise of drinks or coffee later.
“Uh… I mean… Thank you.”
Yeah, that fixed it. Skittering away to the corner of the shop, I manage to pull it together long enough to get some shopping done. I try to smile through the checkout, get a conversation going, but it looks like she took my comment personally. In a testament to the efficacy of the customer service tapes she was forced to watch, she pastes on a class-A grimace and thanks me, inviting me back soon just as a coroner would describe a wound during an autopsy. A flinty coolness has invaded her bubbly stare, and my wave as I head out the door is not returned. I practically gasp at the air outside.

After my supplies are secured, I get back on my bike and ride up the hill towards home. I let my mind wander and let the legs do the work for a while. A woman wanders out of one of those rent-by-the-week motels and grins a painthuffing grin at me. If it weren’t for my headphones I’m sure I’d have heard some of the chaos in her head spill out through her mouth. A passing police cruiser gets a quick upraised middle finger from her as she retreats from the sun into her den. Potent chemical reek pours out of the stormdrain grates; the smell of easy money being made one tubfull at a time. I push on as best I can, swerving to avoid the broken coffee mugs, broken liquor bottles, and dirty diapers. No time to worry about the downfall of civilization.

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