Ammi died when I was thirteen. She wasn’t sick or anything. She wasn’t in an accident either. I woke up one morning and she was gone. As if she was a butterfly that had landed on my nose for a brief moment. But in that brief moment, she made me believe in all things beautiful and pure. Maybe her unfailing faith in me tired her out from the inside. “You’re destined for big things, Sallu, just be kind.” she’d say and fill my head with stars and hopes.
She was right, in a way. I was destined for this large chair behind the cash counter at a gas station on 10th street. It’s the only chair a big guy like me can sit in. I’m glad Ammi passed away when she did. I’m 36, obese, and my Linkedin headline reads – “Salman Qureshi, gas station clerk at Rotten Robbie.” If Ammi were alive to see this, she’d probably slap her palm to her forehead and die again.
Somebody slammed a can of Mountain Dew on the counter. It was a teenager masticating gum and leaning against the counter on his elbow. He raised an eyebrow and jerked his head towards the can.
“Eighty cents, please.” I replied.
He fished a handful of cash from his pocket, and flung the coins on the counter, like you toss food to a dog. Some of the coins fell to the floor. By the time I picked them up, he was gone. He had also stuck his gum on to my cash machine. What is wrong with people?
“What an asshole!” The lady who was next in line said, looking towards the door, as if her stare would bring him crawling back to the store, begging for forgiveness.
“It’s okay, ma’am. I’m used to this.”
She placed a package of sushi on the counter. The fish appeared grey, strangled by the circle of stale rice around it. I looked up at her. Some of her sleek, straight hair stood up like wires. Her formal shirt was coming untucked from her skirt and her makeup wasn’t hiding the dark circles under her eyes. She shifted her weight from one high heel to another.
“You sure you want to buy that?” I blurted and then mentally kicked myself.
“I know, who buys gas station sushi, right? My life’s pathetic.” Her attempt to smile turned into quivering lips and snowballed into a burst of tears. “My husband’s cheating on me, and guess what? I lost my job today. Isn’t life just perfect?”
We stood in silence for a few seconds.
“Sorry.” she sniffled. “I don’t know why I told you that.”
“It’s okay. The sushi’s actually not that bad.” I waddled over to the coffee counter. I made her a strong cup. “Here. It’s on the house.”
“Thanks!” She managed a weak smile.
“Something’s always missing, isn’t it?” The words flew out of my mouth as she turned around to leave.
“Something’s always missing. It’s up to us to make the best of what we have. One day at a time.” Why was I telling her this?
She nodded. The bell at the door tinkled and she walked out.
I sank into my chair and slapped my forehead with my palm. I should’ve stopped at the coffee bit.
A couple of months later, I was mopping the Rotten Robbie restroom floor. The bathroom was definitely the “rotten” bit in their name. I was trying not to throw up when my phone dinged. It dinged again and yet again and a few more times. Somebody better be dying. I walked out of the bathroom. I needed a breather anyway. There were some twenty-five notifications on my Linkedin app.
Somebody had tagged me on an article. “How Gas Station Sushi Changed my Life” by a Susan Marlowe. I clicked on her name. It was her, the crying lady! Turned out she was now a big fish at a hot new tech startup in the valley.
Later that night, as I locked the store, a new notification dinged. Among the many private messages on Linkedin was one from Susan. “Salman, Thank you! I caught your name on your badge that day. Can we meet so I can thank you properly for your kindness? Maybe over some gas station sushi?”
Ammi’s proud face popped up in my head. I grabbed the mop and headed back into the restroom.