The man sitting on the kerb watched the world through drooping eyelids. The tattered signs outside offered beers, wines, spirits. Whatever’s your poison. The metal bars were folded back off the dark doorway. They were doing a roaring trade. Everyone’s got a poison. The buzzer rang as someone walked through the open door.
Behind the counter she was tired. She was sick of people walking in. Sick of that damn buzzer. All her years of standing behind one counter or another were etched on her face in vertical lines. It encoded how many boxes she’d flattened, how many bags she’d offered, how many times someone had threatened her for the cash. But it’s never her cash. Her feet ached. The buzzer rang.
The boys unpacked the stock. She manned the counter. All five feet, two inches of her. Even at her age she could stop a shoplifter at 20 paces. Every two hours she went out for a cigarette. At lunch they all ate pies with tomato sauce, sitting on milk crates next to the bins. On her first day the buzzer rang 48 times. In all the years since it was the only time she’d counted.
She short changed the drunks. The ones who couldn’t focus. She drew her hand back quickly as they handed over their scraped together money. Watched them grovel to pick it up. They have no depth perception after that much drink. She was the gatekeeper to the hit they craved. The dispenser. Everyone’s got a poison. The buzzer rang.
The buzzer kept ringing. An old man was standing in the doorway, peering into the store, swaying slightly.
“Go on, git out of it,” she snarled.
He man tilted his head. He shuffled forward dragging his worn through the heel thongs across the cracked lino. The smell of sour alcohol sweat and rarely used vocal chords reached the counter before he did. He propped himself against it. Held out a fist clenching four $5 notes. Precious little pink tokens.
“Can’t serve you if I don’t know what you want, mate,” she folded her arms and watched the man drop one of the notes.
He took some time to lift his head. It was a delicate battle between gravity and unwilling muscle. Eventually the puppeteer found the right string. Instead of a few limp strands of white hair and a scaly bald head, she was looking at a single bloody blue eye.
“Cartonaport,” he slurred, wetly.
“Port, eh?,” she said, pushing her shoulders back. It was never her money.
“That’ll be $25, you’ve only got $20. Go on, git out of here.”
The puppeteer pulling the old man’s strings wheeled him around and marched him out the door. The buzzer rang as he left.
Everyone’s got a poison. Hers was power.