Family Business


Margaret Lamb/Writing to the Right-Hand Margin Prize (Fiction) Award Co-Winner

I worked for my dad for about two hours before he fired me.

We’d both gotten up early that morning so he could teach me how to work the register.  It wasn’t that hard, and I was an expert with twenty minutes still left before we opened.

My dad decided to use our extra time to give me one of those lectures I’m sure he must practice in the mirror the night before they’re delivered.  This one was meant to teach me to always—“always,” he repeated—respect the customer.

“When they come in here,” he said, leaning forward and raising his eyebrows to indicate that he was being serious. “When they come in here for the first time, a lot of ’em don’t respect themselves.  You gotta fix that.  They’re ashamed to walk through that door—they shouldn’t be, but they are.  And you gotta make sure they’re feelin’ a lot better about themselves when they walk out of it.  You gotta be the one to make ’em understand that there’s nothin’ wrong with what they’re doin’ here.  That’s your responsibility, Ash, ya hear me?”

“Yes, Sir,” I replied, nodding.

“Now why’s that your responsibility?”

“Basic human decency, I suppose,” I said, trying to remember all of the times my dad had talked about the stigma his customers felt like they’d be marked with if they were caught in his store. “They’re embarrassed, and they shouldn’t be—it’s not fair.”

“Yeah, but why else is it important to try and alleviate some of that shame?”

I shrugged.

“If a customer thinks he’s sinnin’ every time he walks through that door, that door’s just not gonna open as much.  If we make him feel comfortable with what he’s doin’—if we show him there’s no shame in it, he’ll come back.  Loyal customers, Ash—loyalty puts food on our table.”

I didn’t expect that I’d know my first customer.

Mr. Glover owned a big chunk of Florida that had been a farm once and a plantation before that.  It was about one mile outside of town—close enough for me to have climbed some of the live oaks he had on his property when I was a kid and far enough away that I’d felt like a rebel doing it.  He was the last Glover, and the Glovers had been around long before Lawtey was a town.  Even though the family money was spent generations before him, he was a mean, stuck-up old bastard.  If anyone tried to talk to him—even a “Good morning,”—he’d smile, squint up at them, and calmly explain that he had no interest in holding any kind of conversation with the children of sharecroppers. A real Southern gentleman, waiting to die in a trailer next to a ruin of a plantation house.  It’s funny how no one remembers how he was, but I suppose we all romanticize the dead in hopes that the same kindness will be extended to us one day.

I wouldn’t have guessed that Mr. Glover was a regular customer—or a customer at all—but he walked straight to the wall of videos and didn’t hesitate at all before picking up the one he chose to rent.

“Have a nice day,” I told him as he walked out of the store after paying.  My voice only shook a little bit.  He didn’t acknowledge me, but I’m pretty sure it was just the force of the air conditioning that made the door slam behind him.

“Don’t bother even sayin’ anything to him.  Comes in here every other week and rents the same damn video.  Never looks at any of the other merchandise.”  My dad was sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaning back against the counter so that the customers wouldn’t be able to see him, but he’d still be able to critique me and pop up and handle anything I couldn’t.

It was quiet for a few minutes.  I straightened some of the boxes of cheap novelty items we kept on the counter.

“I told him once that it’d be cheaper to just buy the video—that I’d even sell it to him.” My dad could never suffer silence for long.

“Oh? Why didn’t he?”

My dad just shook his head, like it was something I’d have to figure out on my own.

Two other men came in, and one bought something, but the store was empty when Andrews arrived.  His uniform was sweat-stained, and some of his grey hair was wet and stuck to his face.  He was holding a video to return.

Andrews was kind of a hero in Lawtey.  He’d been the first cop to stop giving those college kids any grace when it came to the speed limit.  Before Andrews, they used to just speed through Lawtey on their way to Gainesville.  He started out by giving them tickets for going 60 when the limit was 50, and then he started giving them tickets for going 51.  The town’s official reason is that we want to be safe, but really we just like the money.  We need it, too.

When Andrews took his sunglasses off, his face was relaxed and he was smiling a little bit.  When he saw me behind the counter instead of my dad, that smile got sucked back into his mouth and that harsh thin line that had made so many sorority girls cry when he’d handed them tickets replaced it.

“Where’s your daddy today, Miss Ashley?” He asked as he walked up to the counter.

My eyes shot to my dad, but he was shaking his head.

“I’m watching the store today,” I said, feeling more confident when my voice sounded it.  “Can I help you with anything?”

“Huhn,” he grunted.  “Some kinda emergency? You’d think he’d just close the shop for the day.”

“No, Sir.  Nothin’s wrong.  I’m just gonna be helpin’ out around the store from now on.”

“Huhn,” he said again, “how ‘bout that.” He stood there, staring at me, and I wasn’t sure what to do.  I don’t think he was, either.

“Can I help you with anything, Officer Andrews?” I asked finally.

When I addressed him using his title his face started turning red.  I couldn’t tell if it was from anger or embarrassment.  My dad told me later that it was both.

“When’s your daddy gettin’ back?”

“I’m right here, Andrews,” my dad said, hefting himself up off of the floor.  “Just tryin’ to train Ashley—want it to be a family business, you know?”  Fully upright now, he smiled the smile that let him do everything he did and still shake hands with everyone in church on Sundays.

“Now, I’ll tell you what, Bud,” Andrews wasn’t trying to curb his anger anymore.  “I never gave you any trouble about what you do here—”

“Sure gave me a lotta business, though,” my dad said with that same smile, trying to calm Andrews down.

“I never gave you any trouble, but this here,”—Andrews pointed at me—“this here ain’t right.  You got a minor—”

“She’s 18.”

“Point is, this ain’t no place for her.  This ain’t no place for a young lady, Bud.”

I could tell that my dad wanted to say something but was holding his tongue—advice he frequently gave but rarely followed.

“Your own daughter?” Andrews was working himself into a frenzy. “You’d put your own daughter on display for a buncha perverts to—”

“Just what are you implyin’?” No sign of the smile now.

“I’m just sayin’ this ain’t no place for a lady!” Andrews yelled.

“Guess your wife’s not a lady, then,” my dad said, and while I can’t actually remember Andrews punching him, I definitely remember Andrews right after, his mouth slack and his hand limp.

When I looked at my dad, I was surprised to see a trickle of blood running out of his nose and into a triumphant little smirk.  Andrews must have been surprised too.

“What the hell are you smilin’ about?” He asked, but his voice was shaky.

My dad just turned and looked very pointedly at the security camera he’d had installed the year before.

Andrews wasn’t red anymore—he was white.  He looked down at his uniform and I could tell he was starting to understand the possible consequences for what he’d done.

“Bud, I—”

“I suggest you leave now, Andrews,” my dad said, and I’d never and have never seen a man look so smug after just getting punched in the face.

Andrews started to shuffle out.

“Don’t forget to leave that video,” my dad practically crowed.

Andrews walked back to the counter, head down, and held the video he’d rented the week before out to my dad.

“Nope. My daughter’s workin’ today.”

Andrews handed me the video.

My dad watched at the window to make sure Andrews drove away.

“Shame does funny things to a man, Ash.  You did good today.  You’re fired.”

I didn’t say anything.  My dad went into the back room to make copies of the security tape.