Besides the Chuck Wendig prompts I do each week I also try to complete the prompt from The First Line each quarter. The First Line is a journal that publishes four times a year and, each quarter, provides a prompt in the form of a sentence that is to be used as the first line in your story. There are no restrictions on genre or form, but every story in each issue opens with the same first line. If you’re curious about learning more about what they do, the editor was featured on Scott Simon’s NPR show a few weeks ago.
I have been making sporadic submissions to TFL for several years now and have never succeeded in being published. This is my submission for the current issue, which was due on August 1. They didn’t accept it, so I can publish it here for you to read. The first line for the quarter was, “Frank Rooney had been the manager of the Shop & Save for thirty-eight years, and he wasn’t retiring anytime soon.” Please to enjoy!
Frank Rooney had been the manager of the Shop & Save for thirty-eight years, and he wasn’t retiring anytime soon. Oh, sure, he’d thought about it—truth be told, he’d thought about it a lot. But every time he did something happened to draw him back in. Someone would win big in the lotto and he’d get his name in the paper because his store sold them the ticket. Or the price of gas would drop or rise and there’d be a line stretching down the block. Heck, even a heavy rush just before closing time was enough to get his adrenaline pumping.
The eclipse. Geez, he’d never seen anything like the day of the eclipse. The line had been wrapped around the building before he even opened up, and it hadn’t let up all day. There were people who came all this way just to see the damned thing and then missed it because they were on line for a Slush Puppie and a roller dog. It still made him shake his head.
After all that, though, it was days like this that he truly lived for. It was a beautiful fall day outside—Indian summer was well and truly here—and the store was completely empty except for him. There wasn’t even anyone pulled at the pumps. Toby had pulled up in his old beat up Celica and gassed up and bought a grape Fanta, same as he always did. He stood a minute with Frank and shot the breeze but eventually he had to get in his car and drive away. That suited Frank right down to the ground. Toby was a nice enough fella, but sometimes a man just wanted some time to himself.
An hour later Frank was still sitting on his stool behind the counter, staring out at the pumps. A few people had come in, some were regulars, some he didn’t know, some he’d seen now and then. It was slow for a Tuesday, but it wasn’t lunchtime yet. He checked his watch. Almost 11:00. The store would be filled up with customers soon. He got up and walked over to the rollers. He made sure they were loaded with fresh hot dogs and brats and taquitos. He didn’t think much of the taquitos—Mexican food tended to disagree with his constitution—but the kids loved them, so he made sure to keep them in stock. He filled the steamers with fresh buns and made sure there were plenty of condiments. No need to risk running out in the middle of the lunch rush.
Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the door opened up and Eddie came in. Another regular, Frank liked Eddie a lot. He was a kid who stood on street corners and held signs directing people to one business or another. Frank had used him a couple of times when he had too much beer or soda in stock and put them on sale to get rid of the extra. Eddie picked up a bottle of water and a couple of taquitos and came to the register.
“How’s it goin’, Frank?” Eddie had taken his headphones out and draped them around his neck. Frank could hear some kind of rap music coming out of them.
“Not too bad, Ed.” He rang up the order. Eddie knew the total by heart and already had his cash in hand. He got the same thing every time he came in. “You workin’ for Pink today?”
Eddie handed over his money and told Frank to put the change in the “Need a penny, take a penny” cup beside the debit card reader, which he did. “Nah, not today. Actually not working at all today.” He gestured upward. “Too pretty. I didn’t want to be stuck on the corner all day. Even working men got to take a break now and then.” He grinned.
Frank returned the grin and shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve been runnin’ this place for thirty-eight years now and haven’t missed a shift in more than fifteen, I bet.”
“Mrs. Frank doesn’t ask for a vacation now and then?”
“Oh, she takes vacations all the time. Her sister lives in the Hills. She’s a widow, you know, her husband died a few years back. Once or twice a year they go to the beach or to the mountains or whatever they want to do. Gets the wife time with her sister and gets me some time alone. I buy pizza and drink a little beer while she’s gone, you know, the stuff she doesn’t usually like me to do.”
Eddie nodded and grinned again. “Nothing like the bachelor life, huh?”
Frank shook his head. “I like being married. I love having her around, but it’s nice to get to stretch my wings a little now and then.”
The door opened and a couple of other customers came in. A car had pulled up to the pumps as well. Eddie nodded and said goodbye and headed for the door. Frank stopped him. “Check with me in a day or two. I might be having a sale next week. I’ll need a dancing arrow outside on the curb.”
“You got it, Frank.” Eddie waved and was gone.
As he worked through the lunch rush, part of Frank’s mind drifted away, thinking about the things he and Eddie had talked about. He rang up orders, made change, sold lottery tickets, cleared gas pumps, all the things he was supposed to be doing, but inside his head, he kept going round and round and coming back to the same place. Thirty-eight years. Geez.
He looked up to find a young woman at the register. A beautiful girl, stunning, really. Strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes, fair complexion. His heart sighed, and he laughed at himself. Dirty old man! She was young enough to be his granddaughter. Didn’t mean she wasn’t a lovely child, though.
As he rang her up—Snickers bar, Coke Zero, pack of gum, two $3 scratchers—his mind spilled out through his mouth. “Today’s my anniversary.”
“Sorry, what?” She hadn’t been looking at him as he scanned her items, but her eyes came back to him. His heart sighed again.
He laughed. “It’s my anniversary today. Thirty-eight years ago today I took over as manager of this store.”
She nodded, looking impressed. “Happy Anniversary! I didn’t know this store had been here that long. My parents probably came in here when they were in school, then.”
“If they did, I rang them up.” He winked at her. Winked! “Tell you what, since it’s my anniversary I’ll let you have another Snickers bar on the house.”
She lit up, and the light from her smile warmed him. “That’s so sweet! Thank you!” She reached into the rack below the counter and took one and showed it to him. He nodded and she headed for the door.
He called after her. “Tell your folks to come back in sometime. It would be great to see some old familiar faces again.” She turned and waved and smiled again, and all was right with the world. Not even turning back and seeing that old prune Lucille Evers next in line could put out the light of that young supernova.
It sustained him the rest of the day. Usually his anniversary day made him sad and reflective but this one was different. Eddie and his youth and enthusiasm and the young lady with the sun in her soul had lifted him until he could see the world spread out below. He felt like he could do anything. He smiled. I’ll take the wife to dinner tonight and afterwards, who knows what might happen. He paused. Just have to remember to keep the nitro pills on the bedside table. He laughed out loud at that one, startling Zach, who had come in to work the evening shift and was waiting for him to sign out and step away from the register.
“It’s all yours, my boy,” said Frank to Zach. He handed him the register key. “Call me if you need anything. If I don’t answer, be patient. I’ll call you back after we get done.”
“Get done with what?”
Frank touched a finger to the side of his nose and winked, then laughed again and headed for the door. As he left the store, he heard Zach’s voice. “Happy Anniversary, Frank!”
Without looking back, Frank waved and called, “Have a Snickers on me!”
Thirty-eight years deserved that much, at least.