Bright Lights and Fine Powder

by Martin Frier

It was probably one of my more ingenious ideas. If someone told me at any previous point in my life, that I would be a part of something like this... I would have believed them. I'm an ideas guy. This is how I get through my day. You can't have big ideas unless you're willing to think outside of the box sometimes. I guess you can say we were a little reckless, might have even traumatized an entire generation of kids in the area. But with this thing we had going, it didn't even matter. We had enough money to buy those kids all new emotions and memories. Name it and we had it, it was damn good, and we were selling the shit out of it. And the only rat in sight was singing "Achy Breaky Heart" up on stage. We were barely old enough to drive and we were already making more cash than most of the adults we knew. We were the most popular Chuck E. Cheese's probably in all of the United States.

The whole store was in on it. There wasn't one person that needed convincing on the entire staff. From managers down to the greeters at the door. The ones that wanted to be a part of it were paid their fair share. The ones that didn't want in were still paid, less of course, to turn a blind eye. The customers would come in through the front where they'd meet the greeters. We had little codes so that we immediately knew that a customer was there looking for something not on the menu. They would usually say something to the effect of, "I'm not going to be here long, my kid was beggin' me to stop by" or they might say that their kid just needs to use the bathroom. Anything that let us know that this was going to be a brief trip.

We didn't let just anyone come in. The way we kept it looking legitimate was by forcing these people to bring children with them. Kinda sad to see those kids' hopes dashed over and over again, but that way we didn't get dumb high school kids trying to smoke their first bag of pot. I mean, of course we had our occasional trouble makers. Some that didn't have the money came in and started begging for their fix from time to time. Luckily, we didn't even have to deal with them. There was usually at least one father in the store that made it his own responsibility to keep the scum away from his kids.

The greeters all got an ink pad and a stamp with rotating numbers, 01-99. They then stamp every group with the same number. The reason they do that is so they can check that the kids are leaving with the right adults on their way out, and somebody from a different party can't steal another family's kid. As you would expect, high school kids don't really enforce this rule. Maybe if they got nightsticks or mace it would be different, but there's not much they can do. So the special customers are stamped with a specific number that we changed every day, and that's how the cashiers knew who they were. Sometimes the greeters would give a cashier a little head nod so that they knew our guest was coming up so they didn't have to wait in line with the other families. They went up and purchased their item. Spongebob backpacks or fannypacks, depending on how much pot they were looking for, Dora the Explorer for coke, etc. Not too many dads out there were happy that their sons were leaving with Dora the explorer fanny packs. I've seen more than a few throw it out before they even reached the car.

The guys working there were all clean shaven with wide grins on our faces at all times. I probably wouldn't be able to count on both hands the times people thought we were queer. We had to just put what those soccer moms were saying in the back of our minds and keep thinking about that green. At the end of the day, the managers came by to take their seventy-five percent cut. Even though I developed the entire system and we were out there putting our asses on the line, they put up the capital. Not much to argue about there. Plus no one our age was coming close to our earnings, even though there were seven of us splitting the leftover twenty-five percent from the profits. Things didn't seem like they could get much better. My parents knew that my job paid commission for all those Spongebob bags I was selling, so I didn't get any questions about where all the money was coming from. Yeah things were going great, but nothing lasts forever.

My parents were a little older than most kids' parents my age. My dad had just crossed into his sixties, and my mom wasn't very far behind. They were completely laid back and as ready for retirement as I've ever seen. Dad even started wearing Hawaiian shirts around the house on a regular basis. I was never a problem for them growing up, so neither of my parents really noticed when I started my experimentation. You can only work with something for so long before curiosity starts to get a hold of you. I didn't understand the appeal. If this stuff was as bad as my school, the T.V., and my parents said it was, why were people so eager to get their next fix? If it ruined lives, how did these people have all this money to spend, and families to bring to our store? Nothing added up, and I felt like I needed to get to the bottom of it.

It started off innocent enough. Me and some of my friends and coworkers would puff some herbals after our shifts. The managers didn't care as long as it didn't affect our work, but that didn't last too long. We had anything we wanted in the palm of our hands. It was hard not to curl our fingers and close it. Soon after we started becoming better acquainted with our primary product, I started realizing why so many people believed it should be illegal. It started becoming part of my every day process; it was like brushing my teeth. Except brushing my teeth didn't tear up my cheeks and make my nose bleed. It was at the point that I would take any free minute out of my day to do a couple lines. My managers called me in to their office after some of the parents had complained about my sniffling. They said that I should be home and not around young children, and that I was infecting them with my germs. I walked in to the office slowly.

"You guys called for me?"

"Yeah, why don't you have a seat, Jeremy?"

The managers were Matt and Ed. They were still pretty young guys. If they were older, they probably would have had the sense not to risk their lives, and the lives of the kids working at the store. Matt was an overweight guy, I don't think I ever saw him not eating something. He got fired from his last job for embezzlement of company funds or something like that. Don't ask me how he got this job. Ed on the other hand, he was just an all around prick. Why he worked with kids confuses me to this day.

"Do you know why we can use this place to sell our other stuff?" Ed was angry as usual.

"Cause no one would suspect it?"

"WRONG. Everyone suspects it. The last three managers of this very branch were fired for stealing. Then they hired Matt here. You don't think they're watching our every move?"

"The reason this whole thing works is because we have an overwhelming number of actual Chuck E. Cheese customers." Matt said, apparently playing Good Cop. "If you go and scare these customers away, we're left with the junkies shooting up in the bathroom. We're lucky that these people think that you're sick, but don't think for a second that I don't know what's going on. What did I tell you?"

"I know, I know, don't let it interfere with your work."

"Listen, my work is fine. There's absolutely nothing wrong with my work. Me and Ed here are making money hand over fist. Maybe you could too some day, I know you're a smart kid. I don't give a shit what you do when you leave here. Just don't fuck up what we have going. I don't think any of us want that. You got me, big guy?"

"Yeah I got it. Sorry guys."

"Don't worry about it, kid." Matt said, turning back to his desk, picking up his meatball sub.

I was already halfway out the door when I heard Ed add, "Now get the fuck out of here." I've never wanted to strangle someone more than I did right there. Still, to this day, that guy holds the number one spot.

I knew that these guys weren't people I should be messing with, so I decided to hang the powder up. Least for a while anyway. Well... that was the plan. Those questions I was asking myself about why people were so eager for their next fix and all that, that became clear real fast. I couldn't function properly. I felt like I had a never ending hangover, and nothing was helping it. I thought about the white gold day and night. No matter what I tried to occupy my mind with, it would just sneak its way back in. Maybe I was weak, but three days later and I was already back on the stuff. It was like working at a steakhouse and trying to quit eating meat.

Back into my routine in no time. With the time off, I felt like I needed to catch up. I was doing double the amount I normally would and I was starting to care about little else. I came into work stumbling around one morning and my fellow cashiers, Stefanie and Charles, started to worry.

"What the hell are you doing? You said that Matt and Ed were already pissed at you, why are you here looking like that?" Stefanie yelled quietly.

"If they see you you're going to get fired. Do you really hate money that much?" Charles added.

"Shut up and listen," I said, barely able to stand still, "Matt and Ed don't know anything, and they can fire me if they want to." That's what I was trying to say at least. I had barely been sleeping the last few days before that. Parents started to stare at me.

"No, YOU shut up and listen. Go in the bathroom and clean yourself up. You look like hell."

I looked Stefanie in the eyes for an amount of time that could definitely be considered creepy. I then sharply turned away and walked into the bathroom. I tried to clean myself up but I wasn't dirty or anything. I looked like a drug addict. Plain and simple. I washed my face, fixed my hair, and marched back to the cash registers.

"You still look like shit." Stefanie said as warmly as she could manage. I just mumbled and walked toward my register. She then continued, "Hey Jeremy, Before you sign in to your register, can you check if we have gum ball machines in the back closet?"

I checked the closet but there weren't any gum ball machines. What we would normally do in this case was take something off the display, so that's what I did. I put it in its box and gave it to the mom that wanted it to buy it for her son.

"Excuse me, were those marbles in there or gum balls?" The woman asked.

I was already on edge and this woman's question nearly sent me over. I snapped back, "Of course they're marbles" before she could even get her whole question out. What I didn't realize, was that her question was a legitimate one. To keep the employees from chewing the gum that had been on display, the managers had put clear marbles into it. Shouldn't have been a problem for most people, but I guess my brain just wasn't working at normal capacity at the time. Minutes later we heard in order: a yell, gasps from everyone in the room, and then crying. We all knew something wasn't right. Turns out the kid bit down on one of those marbles, thinking it was a gum ball. The kid's tooth shattered and started gushing blood. When I saw that I just looked straight at the ground and got the hell out of there as fast as I could. No good could have come from staying there even an extra second. I didn't even want to think about what Ron and Ed were going to do to me.

Is this what my life's coming to? I was going around half conscious and injuring little kids with my stupidity? Was I actually scared to set foot inside a Chuck E. Cheese's? That wasn't right, that wasn't me. That had to be the turnaround point. Before my bosses even had a chance to chew me out, I quit. Handed in my Dora the Explorer fanny pack and hit the road. I was still a minor at the time, so any lawsuits went straight to my managers I guess, I never really did find out. I didn't hear from a lot of the people I was working with either. Guess the managers felt like they had to punish someone for what happened. That place shouldn't have existed anyway. Kids should be able to go somewhere and play some Skee-ball without junkies trying to steal their tokens from them. I miss the money from time to time, but it's like a trade-off. I get to keep a clear conscience. I've been clean and sober for some time. The substances I can live without, that's not the hard part. The tough part's been going all this time without a good scheme to keep me busy. Like I said, being an idea guy is what gets me through. Not too long before my next trick slides out of my sleeve though. It's gonna be glamorous.

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