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The Neon Guillotine

A 7-Eleven being on our side of town felt like a great welcoming. Like we were finally part of the big thing. We felt like we deserved it.

The families that owned nearby convenience stores wore brave smiles as they manned their counters and waited patiently for the guillotine. A neon 24/7 sign shined like a brand in the 7-Eleven window. Once it opened it would not rest for a single moment, a fact that filled me with awe and terror.

It was almost midnight. I was drawn to the bright, insomniac giant. Inside was sterile and fluorescent. M&M’s and Skittles manned the aisles in perfectly arranged rows, begging for a mouth to crush them into purpose.

“Hey, does this blinking light mean the machine isn’t working?” I said to a slight woman standing near the middle of the store.

“Well, hey is for horses,” she said. She was undressing trays of saran wrapped muffins.

“Oh, um, well I-.”

“What does it say next to the flashing light?” She was mostly bones but wore a smart smile. She had the kind of face that showed she’d already smoked her lungs to ash. Cigarettes pushed her mid thirties to early fifties.

“It says ‘If light is flashing do not use,’” I said, looking at my shoes.

“Ok, that’s about what I thought it said.” I guess I looked how I felt cause then she said, “Don’t start crying on me, I’m just busting your chops. I thought about her words, “busting your chops.” I’d guessed she wasn’t from our side of town because she was white. I knew for sure when she spoke. “Let me get it for you.” She put a muffin in its place in the display and headed to the Slurpee machine. She did some kind of magic, and I had my cup full of cold blue. I gave her exact change. When I was leaving I pulled the door instead of pushing. The door resisted and the failure shook me around a bit. I felt her eyes watching me. I pushed the door open. From behind, I heard her voice call out in a laugh. She said, “I’m proud of you.”

Late night 7-Eleven became a ritual for me. A couple of nights visiting that store and I found that woman, Reggie her nametag explained, was the kind of person you look your entire life for. Reggie was truth teller. She wore a watch that chirped when midnight came. “Another dollar,” she said each time her watch went off and one day became the next.

I returned two days before the end of my break. I was a sophomore. I watched hot dogs roll in infinite grease. I decided on the chicken wings that tasted good and made me feel terribly about forty minutes after I ate them.

“Um, um,” buffalo or crispy was the biggest problem I had inside that 7-Eleven.

“It ain’t exactly rocket science,” Reggie said. “You’re a real pain in my butt, you know that?”

“Okay, okay,” I said. I was about as happy as I’d been that break, that year. An invisible electric bell rang. The 7-Eleven’s mighty doors swung open. Three men who’d been giants to me when I was in high school stepped in. Only one of them was as tall as I was, the other two were much shorter. Their eyes were red and they came in yelling as if they’d just stomped into their own homes. I knew, immediately that they would soon do something I hated. They saw me and almost danced with excitement. I slapped hands with each of them.

The shortest of them said, “Long time,” then called me by a nickname I’d spent two years peeling from my skin. I hated that here, back in our side of town, even now that it was clear that none of them was going to be a star anywhere but in County Rec leagues, inferiority still fell entirely on my shoulders. They were older. I was a little older but still hollow.

I felt Reggie’s blue eyes on us. I hoped she could see I hated them – but I knew she couldn’t. The fact that I’d never be able to show the world the depth and variety of my hate had filled me with sorrow for many years. I had enough to drown all of us.

We all laughed, me hardest of all. Then the group of them rifled through the store. They touched too many things and joked with language I rarely used around white people. They were free and I resented it.

“I guess I’ll do two buffalo and three crispy,” I said finally. The tiny wings shined orangey gold under the heat lamp. She tossed them into a flimsy box and gave me an extra barbecue sauce. She was handing me coins and a receipt.

“Hey wise guy, you planning on paying for that?” Reggie said.

The three men were heading for the door. After their brief time with me they had not come near the register.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about lady,” the tallest of them said.

“I’m talking about that candy you got in your pocket right now.”

I walked slowly, towards the 7-Eleven door. My hollowness screamed and flared.

“I don’t know what you think you saw,” the tallest said, his red eyes glowing, “Cause I’m black I took your shit?” The other two laughed a laugh I remembered.

“Listen, genius, just pay the - ”

“You didn’t see shit,” he said, loud, suddenly angry and in a way that reminded us all that we were who we thought we were. I pushed past the group. Out through the 7-Eleven door. I knew how the rest would go. And I knew I still wasn’t the person who could change anything. Outside, in the smothering warm night I turned and looked through beyond the neon sign 24/7 sign and through the clear glass. I saw Reggie and those guys, a counter and the universe standing between them. I walked back home, munching spicy wings.

The next morning, with my father’s car packed with clothes and everything I thought mattered, I jogged to the Palestinian Deli across the street from the 7-Eleven. A woman sang softly as she massaged mayo into a white roll. After she was done with my sandwich. She began yelling something at the man standing at the main counter. She yelled in a language that sounded like dance and heat. It hurt to not understand her.

The man at the main counter ignored the woman but his blue lips trembled. He looked at me and sipped longingly from a cup filled with the same blue slush that pumped from the heart of the insomniac giant.

“You see,” he said, through a blue smile, “I am very afraid.”


Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is from Spring Valley, Rockland county, NY. He graduated from SUNY Albany and went on to receive his MFA from Syracuse University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing, Printer's Row, Gravel, Foliate Oak and others. His first book, How to Sell a Jacket, is forthcoming via Houghton Mifflin Books February 2019.

ZZ Packer chose "The Neon Guillotine" as the winner of the 2nd Annual Breakwater Review Fiction Contest.

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