Night Shift

by Raj Ramaswamy

Honorable Mention: Flash 405 November 2015, “Roots”

“Thank you, come again,” this cop is saying in an impressive fake accent. He’s saying it to me, even though I’m the one standing here behind the register. Even though I’m the quote-unquote Indian guy. He’s saying it to me because I won’t say it to him, never have, never will. I force a grin at him, and he pushes on out into the night, free coffee in hand. It’s this routine he has. A joke.

“Yeah, whatever man,” I say as the door jangles closed, taking succor in the American-ness of my non-accent. I wipe the counter, check on the cappuccino machine, straighten the magazines. I’m not bothered, I remind myself. It’s just a harmless Simpsons gag is all, nothing to get bent out of shape over. Because relax, the show makes fun of everybody, not just your kind. At least that’s how the cop had explained it to me the first time he said it and I hadn’t smiled back. That’s how a lot of people in this town explain a lot of things.

I give the police free stuff because that’s the arrangement here in this nook of Echo Park. We need to keep them coming around as often as they please, says the store manager, in order to scare the real thieves away. I have to play my part too.

Some time before dawn, I come awake in my seat to the sight of a man pointing something at me through the pocket of his jacket. Could be a gun, could be just fingers. I make like my English is bad, play dumb as I follow instructions, open the register.

Then, just as he’s leaving with the cash, before I even realize what I’m doing, I say it. “Thank you, come again.” It’s the first time I’ve ever said it out loud, and it stops the thief in his tracks. He whirls around and stares at me, as dumbfounded as I am.

“You think this is funny, man?” he says, and for a terrible moment I think he’s going to pull out his gun, real after all. But he only shakes his head sadly, as though I’ve let him down somehow, before disappearing into the night.

I lock the doors, make the call. And then, still wondering what the hell just happened, I put on a fresh pot of coffee: the cops are on their way. They’ll want to know everything.

Raj Ramaswamy has appeared previously in Drunken Boat, ESPNCricinfo, and the PageTurners Cross Cultural Anthology, among a couple of others. He is a graduate of the Writing Program at the California Institute of the Arts.

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