The bell on the door jangled, and the smell of incense from the rack near the door spoke more loudly than the scent of cigarettes that traveled in on the clothing of the two customers ahead of me. The young Colin Farrell look-alike behind the counter was cute—in spite of his unibrow—and he seemed to know it. Two other men worked alongside him, and the three of them flipped from Arabic to English when they saw us coming.
The girls scooted down their favorite aisle where they had already worn a path. They made quick work of their selections and then bickered amongst themselves about fairness and pennies. They had scrounged change from around the house for treats, but they needed an extra boost from me.
The older, balding man with the smiling eyes rang me up, pronouncing my name “Tah-MAR-ah” when he read it off my debit card. His face split into a smile and he crooned, “Beautiful Tamara.”
“Do you know this song?” he said when he finished. I shook my head. “It’s Lebanese. Did your parents once live in Lebanon?”
“How did they choose your name, ma’am? It’s a Lebanese name.”
“It was popular during the 1970s here in the U.S.,” I said. “They just liked it.”
“You need to hear the whole song, ma’am.”
“Okay, I’ll listen online when I get home.”
As we were leaving, a man with a ball python twisted around his neck entered the store. A woman trailed him, cupping a smaller snake in her hands. The girls turned to me and whispered their wishes to hold it. Or have one like it.
The next day was Waffle Saturday at home, but there was no whipped cream in the house. I plucked some cash out of my purse for the girls, and they walked the one block to the convenience store by themselves—something Husband and I had started allowing in 2010. They got the whipped cream and came home with syrup too.
“When we went to pay, we didn’t have enough money, so the man asked how much we had,” Dicka said. “He said it was enough for both.”
“That was nice, but we didn’t need syrup,” I said. “Just the whipped cream.”
The ice cream truck played “Silent Night” as it passed by later that day in July. The girls grabbed their almost depleted change jar.
“One treat,” I said.
“That’s all we have money for,” Ricka hollered over her shoulder as she ran off.
I kept a wary eye on the beat-up white van with its cheery but faded decals of frozen confections as the girls chased it for a block before the driver applied the brakes near the convenience store.
The girls returned home with disappointed faces.
“All we could get was one snow cone. And it’s bland,” Ricka said, wrinkling her nose.
“Maybe the ice cream truck man knows the guys at the store and heard you had extra syrup at home.”
“That’s not funny, Mom.”
The four Muhammads were working the next time I went to the convenience store.
“Is this to have a Super Bowl party at your house?” one said as he rang me up.
“Sure. It’s better than admitting I’m going to eat the chips and dip myself,” I said.
He chuckled. Then his eyes darted out the window, and his smile fell away.
A scuffle had erupted in the parking lot. Two women. Then one burst into the store, still yelling.
“Calm yourself, lady,” he cautioned her.
Turning back to me, he shook his head. Finished, I gathered my bag and dashed out.
The same crew had been employed at the convenience store for years, except for the Colin Farrell look-alike who went away for a while—to college, I imagined—before returning. They had seen a lot. Cars had smashed through the store’s front windows three times before the security barriers—those posts protecting the place from its own parking lot—went up. Then a homicide went down inside the store. Police cars dotted the parking lot for a while after that, their presence marking the spot as troubled. We gave the store our business anyway. They needed it now more than ever.
Then another convenience store opened three blocks from us in the other direction. Another magnetic spot in the neighborhood.
“All cut from the same cloth, aren’t you?” the owner of the store said to the girls and me while bagging our items one day. Another time, he told us about his high school girlfriend.
“She and her whole family were deaf,” he said. “You’d think their house would be quiet, but no. They all made more noise banging around than you’d ever imagine.”
On their own, the girls visited that second store too with their found change from the couch cushions or the top of the dryer. Or with coins Husband and I tossed into their jar when they weren’t looking.
“We didn’t have enough money,” Dicka said when they returned home one day. “But the guy said we could have the candy anyway.”
“Girls, next time, just get what you can afford. You’ve been cut a lot of deals. Too many, really.”
I was grateful the girls’ change jar was empty again when later that summer day the ice cream truck rolled by, this time playing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Now I had the song stuck in my head—five months early. But I thought of Christmas, our sweet life in the hood, and the goodwill of the neighborhood’s convenience stores. Those guys had stuck with the neighborhood—for better or for worse—for years, and with all their kindness and treats, they deserved something sweet too. I mentally added them to our annual cookie list, but wondered if they’d throw away the goodies, not knowing if they were suitable for the Muslim palate. Or maybe they'd eat them.
I decided to leave the marshmallows out of the Haystacks just in case.
*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date/
*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.