Monday Morning At The Mini-Mart

Here’s my submission in response to JOB’s call for fiction. This story was published about five years ago in the now defunct literary magazine Letter X.

One Monday morning I walked into the food mart of a nearby garage and gas station, carrying an opened container of canola oil margarine. The reason for this must remain somewhat obscure, as an absolutely truthful account of anything must remain an impossible ideal … and yet an account must be given, and if other versions should be rendered later – added, collected, sworn to, whatever – we should all bear in mind that to the first version must always go some special acknowledgement or preference. Perhaps “deference” is not too strong a word.

‘Why,’ one might ask, ‘must these reasons remain obscure?’

‘Because,’ I would respond, ‘explanations are overrated.’

‘But you’re the one who started this little story,’ one might protest.

‘And now you have interrupted it,’ I would then be forced to interject.

‘But what about the other…’ one might try to add, before trailing off into a hollow whisper …

At any rate, I can say with near total certainty that I was holding the lid onto the tub with my two thumbs rather than sealing it shut. Perhaps I was looking for jam, but I emphasize that earlier I had left the lid at least partially open. I say all this to point out that my original intentions were certainly pure. And they remain, at least in their essentials, honest. I also realize that one might possibly assume that the lid just hadn’t been fastened to the tub by an overzealous machine on a speedy conveyer belt. Some of those plastic lids can be fairly tricky affairs, I must admit. I myself have some difficulty with the second largest of my own Simple Snap locking plastic containers. But, I hasten to add, not once have I had the least bit of difficulty with one of those margarine containers. Not once. Not the brand I buy.

So there I was, standing in front of the cooling shelves, or whatever they’re called. You know the kind I’m kind I’m referring to here: slightly refrigerated and yet open. What I mean to say is, without a door. So that something could just fall in there, as it were; dropped perhaps, by someone distracted by one of the many beer advertisements on display, or even just looking over at the register to see how long the line is. But not before noticing with some dismay that there were no other tubs of butter substitute to be had. It was at this point, standing by the open refrigerator bin, that I realized I’d left something at home. Possibly it was a question of whether or not I had enough jam. Or maybe my own refrigerator door had been left ajar. Maybe it was a pot of water boiling on the stove, I really don’t remember. What I did not do was lose my nerve, because I most certainly was not stealing.

I ran out the door, jumped into my car, and drove off to check on the amount of jam remaining, or turn off the stove, or whatever it was that needed taking care of. I might have though about having my toast without butter substitute, but no, damn it, I’d already paid and I intended to have that toast exactly the way I like it. When I’d finished I drove straight back to the garage in only slightly less haste than I’d driven off in moments before. I specifically remember stopping once at a traffic light. I specifically remember looking away from that traffic light to search around the interior of my car. At that moment I wasn’t exactly sure why I did this, but I did. Then, in a flash of insight not unlike those dreams in which one realizes one has walked onto the playground without any pants on, I remembered it all too clearly. I’d left it, dropped it actually, right where I was standing, leaving it amidst the cold cuts and the wine and whatever provisions they always keep in those open refrigerator bins. And since I’d already observed that no other tubs were available, there was but one simple question with which I confronted myself: Would it still be there when I returned?

When I got back to the gas station I parked my car in front of the unlit garage, dark and mysterious as any cave on a deserted island. I paused outside the door before going in, looking through the glass wall at the man behind the cash register, who for the moment was busy with a short line of customers.

And how short was that line?

Well, it was much shorter, actually. Very much shorter indeed.

Rather than explain why I’d come to retrieve a tub of margarine I’d left in his cooling bin I decided I would just dart in and grab it – assuming it was still there – and dart out again while he was helping the next person in line. I went in, I looked down, it was still there. Just as I’d dropped it, with that lid raised and slightly off kilter on one side. I grabbed it, turned to leave, and made straight for the door. The store seemed much more crowded at this point. The door closed behind me, the bells were still ringing in my ears, and then again I looked under the lid to check for contents I already knew were missing. My mistake was in glancing back into the store after I’d made it outside. I looked to see if I’d been noticed, looked back at the man at the register, and then discovered that I certainly had been noticed. He glared back at me with a face that expressed both confusion and anger, and then mouthed the words ‘Get back in here!’ I did. Once inside the door I held onto the tub of margarine with both hands and explained that I’d simply retrieved this tub that I’d accidentally dropped there just a few minutes earlier.

‘How do I know it’s yours?’ he asked, or rather said, pointedly. ‘We have that same brand.’

‘Indeed you do.’ I said, ‘I’ve bought some here many times before, but not this one. Or what I mean is, not this time. It still has fork marks in it.’

This last, desperate, defiant remark despite my deepest shame. And I was ready to show those marks, if circumstances required, and circumstances certainly did require, and already I had taken off the lid and was extending the tub with an outstretched arm when he then made it clear that there was no need for a display, no need for any further discussion at all, and there I was, still holding the tub out at arm’s length as he averted his eyes, even closed them, turning his head slightly, turning it towards the refrigerator bin, and then, then I knew that I had to put my margarine back.

I stood there knowing I’d lost and yet not knowing what to do next. I couldn’t bring myself to return the tub. It was patently ridiculous to leave an open container of butter substitute from which one full third of the contents had already been forked onto someone’s morning toast. There could be crumbs inside. There most certainly were crumbs inside. What would the next customer think? And no, there is no guarantee that next customer would be me. Possibly? Yes. Probably? Maybe. Certainly? Absolutely not.

By this time I’d gotten the attention of the rest of the people there – a couple of customers and a few employees, one beefy garage attendant in particular, wearing a blue muslin jacket and rolling his shoulders over a broom. I didn’t know what to do, I was stuck, and I felt the warm flush of tears rising inside me like a vase under a fast flowing faucet. I realized only then that the clerk wanted me to pay for the tub, and this I simply would not do. I started crying. Whether or not those tears were in the end forced I cannot say, but it is clear to me even now that they were abundantly available. They made not the least little impression on the man behind the counter. The mechanic in blue obviously thought I was being ridiculous, and grinned at me wildly as I slowly walked the margarine back over to the open bin.

I stacked the container on top of some cold cuts. Disease-ridden, most likely. But with that lid merely placed. Not fastened. No one else should suffer what I have suffered.

I turned back towards the people in the mini-mart. Tears of hot shame were still streaming down my cheeks as I faced them, for I wanted them to see me, no longer ashamed of my shame, as if abject weakness might somehow prove victorious in the end. It did not. The clerk, believing his word was truly final, was implacable as ever, already assisting the next customer in line, already heedless of any presence of mine. After glancing over at me once or twice as I stood by the door, the mechanic went back to his simple chore, shuffling his steps as he swept the floor.

I stood there sobbing while everybody looked away.

I stood by the door, and one by one they shuffled past me: a pack of cigarettes was stuffed into a shirt pocket, a candy bar was freed from its wrapper, and a wallet was slipped into a back pocket, accompanied by a dismissive shake of the head. Nobody understood. Everybody left.

Leaving me.


  1. Dorian Speed says

    I like the attention you have paid to both the importance of properly-accessorized toast and the details of plastic storage containers. I'm guessing Simple Snap was inspired by Snapware.

    Plus, you know, nice vignette.

  2. Jonathan Webb says

    I once lived next to a 7-11 in Campbell, CA while working an all-night shift at Hewlitt-Packard and going to school in the mornings. One day I dreamed I walked into the store in my underwear and I think I actually DID!

    Epic vignette. Thanks.

  3. Quin Finnegan says

    Many thanks, Dorian. I'm sure you're right; I'm a few years away from the story, let alone the inspiration for it, so I don't really remember.

    And etiam tibi, Jonathan! That sounds like an interesting dream … were you at the time involved in a huge meth manufacturing operation? And because of this needed an out, and by faking a fugue state you managed to procure a nice, safe hospital bed for yourself as an alibi? That sounds familiar.

  4. I didn't understand the story; I'll read it again later because I'm sure it contains a moral.

  5. Jonathan Webb says

    Busted again. You always break me down under pressure. I'm a mental midget like Richie Sexson.

  6. Jonathan Webb says

    Or Jeff Cirillo, or Chone Figgins, or Milton Bradley, or Carlos Beltre. Take your pick.

  7. The begining reads like a parody of The Brothers K

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