Green, always glowing green: the symbol of go, okay, you have permission. You don’t do anything without a green light. The button lit on the copier under my index finger and I pushed it harder than I wanted to. That little green button that stirred the copier to life was my personal punching bag, as if pressing it any harder would seep the frustration from my tired hands. It was even a mockery of my name. I’m Erik Greene, and just like that stupid little button, I don’t do anything unless I’m told.
And I fucking hate myself for it.
Ten more minutes. I looked at the clock above the copy center. Ten more minutes and I’m free. Ten more minutes until I could comfort the lonely beer in the fridge back at my apartment, boil pasta for one, and slap a can of sauce over the top.
“Excuse me, but can you go any faster? I have a PTA meeting in a few minutes, and I’m going to be late. How hard is it to make 20 copies on yellow paper? God, I can’t believe they pay above minimum wage for this job.”
Thanks, I actually make sixty cents more than minimum wage, I wanted to scream at her.
Instead, my familiar, yet fake, retail smile plastered to my face like second nature, I snatched her copies off the tray. I slipped them in a tidy envelope stamped with the Copy n Go logo, which oddly resembled an ancient artifact of a typewriter. “Here you go, ma’am, that will be two dollars, please.”
The woman on the other side of the counter, pink manicured nails, pink blouse, black slacks and all, tossed her hair over her shoulder and reached in her small purse, producing her rectangular piece of plastic. She stuck it in backwards, groaning when the chip didn’t take, and the machine clanged loudly.
“I’m sorry, but could you just…” I kept smiling as I demonstrated with my hands, “…turn it over, and um…”
“Ugh! These chips are so freaking stupid!” Ignoring me, she ripped her card out and threw it back in her purse. “Please tell me you take cash?”
Six more minutes till freedom. Gritting my teeth lightly and praying she didn’t hear, I smiled as hard as I could. “Yes, yes we do.”
She pushed a fifty-dollar bill across the counter, and my smile twitched slightly. I already knew I didn’t have that in my drawer. I pressed the button on my headset.
“What is it now?” The tired, annoyed voice of my manager, Debbie, answered a few seconds later.
“I need change for a fifty.” I tried so hard to be nice to her. She was nice to me when I was nice to her, unlike the other dicks that worked here.
“I’ll be right there.”
She sounded less tired when she said it, so maybe my niceness was working to some extent.
“Ugh! Are you kidding me? I’m going to be SO late!” The woman complained. She was staring at her gold-covered iPhone, her nails clacking across the touchscreen.
As I tried to patiently wait for Debbie with my change, two other customers walked in the sliding red doors opposite my counter.
Don’t come over here, I silently begged.
Of course, they didn’t listen.
One was a lawyer with a stack of papers under his arm, the other, a lady with a walker and a folder of pictures that hung out the end.
No, no, no, my brain screamed. Please, god, no.
They both locked eyes with me and I had to smile once more. I didn’t know how long I could take this anymore.
“Here’s your change,” Debbie said behind me. So focused on the new customers I didn’t have time to serve, I jumped as I turned to see my manager shoving a two twenties and a ten at me. “By the way, Darren called in sick. You can hang around for an extra hour, right?”
I passed Debbie the fifty, nodding against my will, and opened the drawer to give the lady her change.
“Good.” Debbie strode back to her office.
Snatching her envelope of copies, the lady grabbed her change, didn’t look up from her phone, and snapped, “Thanks, Derrick.”
“My name’s not…” but she was already gone. Ten years I’ve given to this store, and my manager couldn’t even remember my name? Are you fu…
Ripping me out of my annoyed thoughts, the man in a suit, the lawyer looking type, stepped to the counter. “I’m so sorry for the short notice, but I have court in an hour…”
Ha, called it. My smile was amused now but didn’t stay for long.
“…and I need an exact replica of these files. Everything must be stapled, paperclipped, and there’s some color copies mixed throughout. Maybe a few transparencies, so it will need hand feeding. Can you do that?”
Fuck no, I’m supposed to be leaving! My brain screamed. The last thing I want to do is your stupid paperwork! Instead, I nodded. “Yes, I can do that, sir.” I took his name and phone number on the blue and white envelope, ran over the price list with him briefly, which he just waved away and pre-paid hurriedly.
At least he could get the chip in right the first time, thank god.
He flashed me a smile and left the store.
The old lady behind him was the easiest customer of the day. She just wanted two copies of her grandchildren and she smiled genuinely and tipped me a whole dollar. I didn’t even care. She lessened my anger – slightly.
With her gone, I turned to the legal papers and started with one copy at a time. Remove staple, copy, staple. Run to color copier, copy, staple. Green button. Replace magenta toner, clear jam in copier, get on hands and knees to pull small paper size of a dime from jam. Green button. Groan. Back to the black and white Rioch now, which is now out of paper. Unwrap paper. Insert in copier. Green button, green button, green button.
“Excuse me, but do you sell bubble wrap?”
I was so concentrated on running three machines that a female voice startled me, and I almost lost the papers I was busy trying to paperclip back together. I turned to the counter and nearly dropped the papers entirely.
It wasn’t that she was striking, manicured, or even dressed to the nines. In fact, she was rather normal looking. She wore a blue t-shirt, two sizes too big, slipped over one shoulder, revealing a thin pink bra strap, and her blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She wasn’t overly thin or tall, about my height, and she looked like she could eat a cheeseburger faster than I could.
Compared to old ladies, lawyers, and bitchy PTA mom’s, she was comfortable looking in her own way. She was chubby-cute, and man, was it adorable as hell.
“Hi! Um,” she leaned over slightly and peered at my white name tag, “Erik, right? Can you point me in the direction of bubble wrap, please?”
All thought of legal copies fled my mind and I set them aside. We were supposed to call an associate to walk customers to products, but so late in the afternoon it was just me and Becky, the bored cashier across the store, and Kyle, the assistant manager and computer associate, was probably somewhere in the back, likely putting something up his nose, as I didn’t see him on the floor. It was up to me to show this woman the bubble wrap – which happened to be directly across from the copy center.
“Yeah, we do. I’ll show you, if you’ll follow me, Mrs…?”
She laughed, an actual genuine, delightful sound. “Oh, god, no, I’m just Kris.” She chuckled, probably since I was bad at hiding my shock. She waved a hand to dismiss it. “That’s actually why I need bubble wrap. I’m moving out of that bastard’s house, finally.”
“Wow, I, um…” I stumbled over my words, just as we reached the aisle four rows big of every type of bubble wrap, in three colors, anyone could imagine. “That’s good, moving out, I mean.” I swallowed hard. Could I be any more of an idiot?
She smiled. “It’s totally fine. I haven’t told a lot of people, so I’m surprised I even said it.” She leaned closer and I could faintly smell mint toothpaste and some kind of flower. Roses, or something. “It was for the best.”
I blinked at her blatant violation of social standards. I tried to dismiss it, because as she said, she didn’t seem to have many friends. And after all, I was the copy guy. I knew all the scandals in town, all the court cases, who was sleeping with who, who had a new baby, and who was graduating from high school. I copied all their pictures, scanned them to thumb drives, and blew them up into posters, laminated and all. I probably knew more small-town gossip than the mailman or the priest.
“Don’t look so shocked, Erik,” the woman, Kris, I remembered, continued, as she tucked a wide bundle of green bubble wrap under her arm. “People get divorced all the time. Even you, right?”
“I suppose,” I answered quickly, not sure how much I should share with an almost-stranger. “I’ve been dumped a few times, never, uh, married though.” Every time she left cuz I was too boring, I thought grimly. I was fully aware girls didn’t like the awkward, shy guy like me. I liked that just fine, I guess. When they tired of me, they threw around words like spineless, boring, uncreative. That was okay.
It was Kris’ turn to blink at me. She cleared her throat. “Can you, um, check me out?” She laughed. “I mean, uh… you know what I mean.” She blushed. It was cute.
“Bruh. Tell her you already are!” Kyle’s lewd comment blasted over my headset. Silencing him with a press of the button tacked to my collar, I ushered Kris back to my counter and scanned her bubble wrap.
“Bruh, she thicc. Like, two c’s. Just tell her she round!”
“Kyle, that’s enough,” Debbie’s voice interrupted.
“Ugh, I can see her from here, she looks like a slut,” Bethany, the high school girl at the front counter, threw me a look as she whispered it into the headset.
“Come on guys, get back to work,” Debbie barked.
“Thanks for shopping with Paperclip today!” I announced, as Kris gave a little wave and exited the sliding doors to the parking lot.
Kyle had materialized to my right. He slapped the counter so hard it startled me.
“Come on, she was newly single!” At least he had the good sense to lower his voice. “Bruh, she was asking for a ride on the Erik train! I mean, it’s probably one of those short trains but … newly divorced, man! Is your dick fucked or something?” He lowered his voice and looked around for Debbie, who snuck around as well as Kyle did. “Know what I mean, bruh?”
“Shut up,” I told him, turning my back to the counter and finishing up the lawyer’s job. I priced it, taped the receipt to the bag, and ripped my apron off with a vengeance, tossing it in Kyle’s face.
“Bruh, where you go? You gotta like work, bro.” Kyle asked, frowning as he caught it.
“I’m on overtime. You’re copy center now!”
“But…I don’t even know how to do shit,” Kyle sputtered. “What’s this bit, man?”
“It’s easy,” I said, shrugging into my coat I kept under the counter. “Just press the goddamn green button.”
It was becoming a ritual that I would trudge to my old beat up Dodge, slide behind the wheel, and slam it a few times with the palm of my hand. I felt the frustration slowly evaporate and I exhaled, running a hand through my dark hair. My anxiety and anger were out of control lately, and I wasn’t exactly sure what to do about it.
I did know, however, that anger never solve anything, and it was much better to just hide it. So I did.
“Until tomorrow, you fucking evil mistress,” I stared up at the giant Paperclip next to the red lettering before I pulled the car into drive. “Until tomorrow.”
I wanted to forget today, like so many others, that blended together in a mix of angry, impatient customers and busy accountants and supervisors. I was good at what I did, always with a smile on my face. But I wasn’t sure how much more I could take.
I also couldn’t get that woman Kris out of my mind as I prepared soup and crackers for my lonely party of one back at my apartment. As I reached for my last beer in the fridge and saw the note from my roommate, Steve, tacked to the fridge door with a plain green circle magnet.
“Studying late on campus with buds, be back late,” I read out loud. “Well, that figures, Steve is always on campus late.” I sighed and gathered my dinner to take to the small living room. I wish I had the balls like Steve to go to school. I tried college once – it wasn’t for me. And it wasn’t because I didn’t have the brains for it. It was even lonelier than working in a copy shop – at least I had customers, unlike school, where it was the same trudge up the halls, keeping my head down and hoping no one talked to me.
I didn’t like people, and they didn’t like me, unless I was making copies for them or printing out a poster. I liked that just fine.
With a sigh, I flipped on my PlayStation and scrolled over to my open game of Skyrim. After wandering around aimlessly for a few hours and killing a couple of dragons and crafting some gear, I found I couldn’t focus on any quest. The green button on the copier – and my PlayStation controller – actually haunted my dreams.
Later that night I lay awake in my twin size bed – I wondered if she was as lonely as I was, having just broke up with her husband?
It was too bad she was just a customer, and I’d never see her again.