Stephen Mruzik



Big plans tonight: Culver’s. Six o’clock. Sasha and I. Three years together. Three years strong now.

She wants to keep the night low-key, but Culver’s was our first date and I’m a sucker for traditions.

Until then, though, I still have four minutes to go before 5:00, four minutes to go before I can clock out.

4:56. Bella, the closing cashier, is already at the register, ready to relieve me. She’s humming along to the beginning of “With or Without You” playing over the store’s speakers. Always punctual and always in a good mood. She offers to cover the register for me so I can return to the breakroom to grab my jacket. Zeke wouldn’t approve. You’re stealing time from the company when you do that; don’t be a time thief. We don’t care. We’re part-timers who steal in solidarity.

4:57. I’m on my way to the breakroom. It takes about a minute to walk from the registers to the back, where the breakroom and bathrooms are. It’s the week of Thanksgiving, three days before, and the drive aisle is crowded with people, lining up by the displays of turkey costumes and sweaters for their dogs. I’m quick, though, and maneuver through them with efficiency. Bono’s saying he’ll wait for me.

4:58. I’m in the breakroom. When I put on my jacket, I’m calling Sasha at the same time. Figure it’s a good idea to confirm plans. She knows about Culver’s, but not about the rest.

“That’s fine,” she says. “The door will be open when you get here.”

I can’t help but notice she doesn’t sound too excited about the date tonight. I tell her I love her.

“You, too.” She hangs up.

4:59. I take a moment to analyze the cadences in her voice during our call. Am I overthinking? Overlooking something?

5:00. I’m on my way back to the front of the store as U2 reaches its final minute of pure instrumentals. The time-clock room is just behind the registers, which makes the walk from the registers to the breakroom and then from the breakroom back to the registers kind of tedious, but I don’t mind the extra steps after standing in one place for eight hours.

I clock out forty-five seconds after 5:00, and leave the time-clock room, then wave goodbye to Bella, walking through the sliding glass doors just as 5:00 turns to 5:01.



Big plans tonight: Culver’s. Sasha. Three years.

She wants something low-key, but I’m a sucker for traditions.

4:56. Bella is already at the register, ready to relieve. She’s humming “With or Without You.” I leave the register before she even agrees to relieve me, but she’s in a good mood. She doesn’t mind.

Don’t be a time thief.

I roll my eyes to an imaginary Zeke.

4:57. Let’s try to be a little bit faster to the breakroom now. Stay focused. But the drive aisle is still crowded—and, arguably, even a little more congested if I’m trying to maneuver through them even just a few seconds earlier than usual.

I mouth Bono’s “I’ll wait for you” just a few seconds before he actually says it this time.

The seconds matter.

4:58. I call Sasha to confirm plans while putting on my jacket.

“That’s fine,” she says. “The door will be open when you get here.”

I don’t have time to overthink. I just drop a “love you,” hang up, and start speed-walking to the time-clock room.

4:59. Zeke is in the time-clock room grabbing some paperwork he just printed out from his office. He’s glad he caught me, though, because he wanted to talk to me about my availability this week.

“You think you can help out on Saturday? We’re gonna need some coverage. Black Friday weekend.”

I don’t want to, but I’m in a rush and don’t have time to dwell. “Sure, no problem.”

He pats me on the back. He doesn’t even notice I already have my jacket on before clocking out—he’s just happy to have a team player.

5:00. I clock out. Still—forty-five seconds after.

U2’s instrumentals fade, but that doesn’t stop the panic from setting in as I walk through the sliding glass doors. Only to find myself back behind the cash register.



Culver’s. Sasha. Big plans.

4:56. Bella’s already at the register, already humming, ready to relieve. I sprint down the drive aisle, maneuvering and juking and weaving through the congestion of people making their pets try on the turkey costumes.

4:57. I trip over a Lab. Hands break the fall. I hear an apology—probably the owner. I’m good. Don’t look back—just keep running to the breakroom.

“Oliver?” The same voice again—a familiar one, I now realize.

I turn and furrow my brow for a moment. An old college classmate, perhaps? He seems to recognize me, though, and I don’t have time to go through the re-introduction process, so I smile and shake his hand.

4:58. “Oh—hey, man. How you been?”

“Just shopping for Cerberus, here.”

Cerberus, the Lab, jumps on me and tries to lick my face, but this possibly-old-college-friend pulls him back down with the leash before any damage is done.

“Sorry about him, again. He’s still got a lot of puppy in him!”

He tries to make small talk, asks me what it’s like working at Dogs-R-Dope, says it must be cool to see all the animals. I apologize and tell him I’m in a hurry. Big night ahead.

4:59. Don’t even bother calling Sasha this time. It’s almost five. Just grab the jacket and run.

Cerberus nods at me on my way back up, smiling, tail wagging.

5:00. Forty-five seconds after, again.



4:56. Bella’s here, ready to relieve, and I figure this time: fuck it, I don’t need my jacket. Let’s clock out early. Leave the store before “With or Without You” ends.

4:57. Zeke’s in the time clock room, slapping the printer and jiggling a piece of paper from the tray. This does not stop him from noticing me enter, however.

“Heading out?”

“Five o’clock,” I say.

He doesn’t answer; he’s still kind of mad at the printer. I punch out, put a hand on the door, ready to exit, but Zeke stops me.

“Hey—before you leave.”

Sure, whatever. Let’s get this over with.

“Yeah,” I say. “Saturday’s no problem.”

Hand on shoulder. “Glad to have a team player.”

4:58. On my way out. Should be good now. The sliding glass doors are right there.

4:59. As soon as I step outside, a child collides into me. Not just a child, though; a child riding full speed on a black and yellow Mongoose down the shopping mall of the Brentwood Promenade with a group of more children who are also riding full speed on black and yellow Mongooses. The collision obliterates the right side of my ribcage and shatters my leg and causes me to fall down onto the pavement. Thankfully, there is no blood, but it is difficult to stand up. I am writhing.

5:00. Customers and co-workers sprint outside to catch a glimpse of what just happened, while the child’s friends slam the brakes of their Mongooses and turn back around to double check. I pretend it hurts less than it actually does, wave them off to let them know I am fine.

Most of them, however, are more concerned about the child. The collision propelled him over the top of his Mongoose and face-first into one of the brick-layered pillars just outside the store.

He’s on the ground, unresponsive.



4:56. I am back at the register, with Bella ready to relieve. To my surprise, no wounds and no blood. Leg is fine. Ribs are intact.

But the child?

I do the same as last time—skip the jacket, agree to the Saturday shift, clock out, walk to the vestibule—only now, instead of walking through the sliding glass doors, I keep a safe distance and watch the outside. Keep an eye out for the children on Mongooses. Make sure the child, like me, is uninjured.


A customer makes her way through those doors just as I am about to exit. I nod politely as we cross paths, but once I am inside the vestibule, she speaks in my direction.

I pretend not to hear her, though, just for a moment, just long enough to confirm that the child is alright—without my interference, he and his Mongoose buddies are able to fly through the Brentwood Promenade without a care in the world. How fortunate.

I take a deep breath. First relief, only for it to be followed by a lingering question: if I can’t get out of the Brentwood Dogs-R-Dope, what, then, transfers from one loop to the next?


I turn around to find not just the customer, but Zeke close by.

“You able to assist this young woman before you leave, Oliver?” He thanks me before returning to his office.

I consider, for a moment, refusing—I need to stand up for myself more often—but I just smile and nod, then recite the script: “Welcome to Dogs-R-Dope. What can I assist you with today?”



4:56. This time, let’s not even bother clocking out. If I don’t go into the time clock room, Zeke won’t see me, and if he doesn’t see me, he won’t be able to ask me to come in this Saturday. And when I come in next, I can just say I forgot to clock out. Happens to the best of us; we just have to sign the punch edit sheet to make sure it is adjusted before the next pay period.

When Bella relieves me, I sprint toward through the sliding glass doors. I’m out the door before Bono even drops any lyrics.

I’m quick enough to avoid the customer who needs assistance, but it’s no use: a child, a Mongoose, the brick-layered pillar, obliterated ribs and a shattered leg.

A different child this time, but a child nonetheless.



The child is unharmed.



Alright. How about if I go through the emergency exit? It’s the only other potential exit of the store. Only downside is that the door’s all the way in the back, in the receiving area, and opening it will set off a security alarm.

I’m running out of options, though, and I can’t be responsible for the death of a third child.

When Bella relieves me, I begin the dead sprint. Surely, people are staring, but I don’t care.

But it’s no use: another child, another Mongoose, a steel dumpster instead of a brick-layered pillar, still the same obliterated ribs and shattered leg.



Also unharmed.

The children are always fine, but their deaths stay with me.



I call Sasha—not to confirm plans, but to tell her what’s happening.

The call doesn’t last long. She’s not in the mood for Dogs-R-Dope stories and hangs up.



I call her again. She has no idea what I am talking about.

“Stop talking about Dogs-R-Dope,” she says. “You’re better than this.”



I call to confirm plans again, just in case she’s still mad from the previous loop.

“That’s fine,” she says. “The door will be open when you get here.”

Is my memory the only thing that sticks?



I need a breather.

When Bella relieves me, I go to the breakroom. Reach it by 4:58. Only place in the store I am certain is free of customers, of co-workers, of animals, of Zeke, of children.

I sit in one of the steel chairs, put my head down on the plastic lunch table, close my eyes.

Three minutes of rest and relaxation.

No headphones on me, unfortunately, so I’ll have to learn to accept the U2.



Back at the register, still as tired as before.

How fast can I get to the breakroom?



Going straight from the register, down the drive aisle, is no good. Even if it’s the shortest distance to the breakroom, the crowd of shoppers is too congested, and I’ll occasionally still run into Cerberus, and no matter how many times I make small talk with his owner, I still don’t recognize him. Fastest I can get to the breakroom is 4:58.

If I try going from the registers to the fish department, then through the back end of the aisles toward the breakroom, I can avoid the congestion, and Cerberus, and his owner, but I do run into Sadie, who needs assistance catching the perfect neon tetra for a pair of newlyweds. Still don’t get to the breakroom until 4:58.

I can try going from the registers, down the dog toy aisle, toward the wall of dog beds, and then loop my way around to the back of the store, into the breakroom, but it’s the same problem as the fish department detour. I get stopped by a family of twelve who needs help finding the best Kong Ball for their new puppy.


I can go from the registers, down any aisle, loop around, it doesn’t matter. There’s always someone in the way. If it’s not Cerberus and his owner, it’s Sadie and the neon tetra newlyweds. If it’s not neon tetras, it’s Kong Balls. If it’s not a family of twelve, it’s someone reading Proust in the middle of the Pro Plan aisle. If it’s not Proust, it’s Zeke. If it’s not Zeke, it’s a fallen Mongoose and a dead child.

If it’s none of the above, it’s something else. No matter what, I don’t reach the breakroom until 4:58.

It only took hearing “With or Without You” forty-six times in a row, but it finally registers now: this is the reality of it all.



I usually take the route toward the dog beds when going to the breakroom. This allows me to snatch one of the store-brand orthopedic dog beds, a fleece pet blanket hanging on one of the clips trips nearby, one of our human-sized dog pillows, and bring them all with me. That way, I can rest in the breakroom lying down, instead of sitting on a steel chair, face first into a plastic table.

The blanket goes to my ankles and the pillow itches and the orthopedic bed hurts my back and it’s only three minutes, but it’s something.



I am absentmindedly recovering the Pro Plan aisle. I ensure that all the labels on the cans are facing outward, ensure that all bags of food are flush and perfectly aligned. Sometimes, a stocker will try to cram a third bag onto the shelf when the plan-o-gram only calls for two. It annoys me when I’m the closing cashier, even though I know I do the same whenever I am called in to stock in the early morning.

While recovering, I engage in small talk with Proust about U2. He’s a big fan and makes sure to see them anytime they come to St. Louis.



I ask Proust about his Thanksgiving plans. Overnight shift at Best Buy.



Proust and I discuss ways in which the Cardinals might make the playoffs next year. The conversation is about to elegantly segue into something else entirely, but—



I need a breather from Proust, so I return to the breakroom at 4:58, carrying the bed, blanket, and pillow. I consider calling Sasha because it’s been a while since we last spoke, but then I remember that I’m the only one who doesn’t reset during the loop. In her mind, our last convo was still around 3:30, during my scheduled fifteen, when I used the break as an opportunity to respond to one of her memes from 2:45 with another meme. She hasn’t responded yet, so I just send an additional meme instead.

During these three minutes, I lie awake and study the SO DOPE! CELEBRATE YOUR CO-DAWGS bulletin on the far wall of the breakroom. Employees of the Month dating back to 2013. It’s not as glamorous nor as prestigious as it sounds. Management essentially chooses a new employee at random each month, then works their way through the staff until everyone has been included. Then repeat. It’s no different than a participation trophy, and yet, I still can’t help myself from counting the number of pictures I have on the wall.

Eight, dating back as early as October 2014. The September before me, Zeke—pre-store manager Zeke—back when he still had a ponytail and a well-toned body.

The November after? Sasha.

She left the company after Black Friday that year, which spawned an inside joke among co-workers that anyone who gets Employee of the Month (or Dawg of the Month, in Dogs-R-Dope’s terms) is rewarded with an escape hatch from the company. I told her this joke during one of our earlier dates. She laughed at first. Now, she shrugs. “I saw a version of myself,” she said. “One that could work there forever. I needed to get out.”

She sees herself in me. The wrong version.



Sometimes, I call her, just to hear a voice—usually after a loop where I attempt an escape that inevitably ends with another fallen Mongoose and a dead child. She never sounds excited about our anniversary Culver’s date. It could be that she’s tired from work. It could be that we’ve been dating for three years and she’s frustrated with the repetition of it all, or it could be that she, unlike me, has no intention to make our third anniversary anything more than another night we’ve stayed together.

It could be nothing, too. It could be the U2 making me overanalyze her words and pauses.

In some loops, I close my eyes and absorb the U2. In others, I convince myself it won’t be “With or Without You” again, but “Another One Bites the Dust,” or “Tainted Love,” or “She’s Gone,” or any of the other regulars that usually play on the store’s speaker, or some wildcard like Yoko Shimomura. Or some Erra—yeah, I could go for some metalcore. It’ll never happen, but I try to find hope in small ways.

I check my fantasy football lineup and make last-minute changes for the game tonight.

I exercise. Sit-ups, mostly.

I draft a message I want to send to Sasha.

I rest my eyes for a minute.

I eat an expired Snickers from the vending machine.

I get a headache.

I watch cold opens on my phone’s Netflix app—the battery stays at an eternal fifty-four percent.

I leave the breakroom and ask Proust about Best Buy’s Black Fridays. We share our pain.

I help catch some neon tetras.

I watch a parakeet in its cage.

I pet Cerberus and talk with the old college friend. Despite retaining my memories, he never becomes any more familiar.

In between all these things, I occasionally talk to Zeke, because one of the few things I haven’t tried yet is stand up to him. Eventually, with enough buildup and enough courage, I’ll be able to tell him I can’t work on Saturday, that I’m allowed to be unreliable sometimes, that I’m allowed to put personal over professional. Maybe this is what’s keeping me in place.

Although I’m not yet sure if courage transfers the same way my memories do.



It might be because I’ve been so preoccupied with myself, but it finally occurs to me that right as Bella relieves me from the register, she already has a bit of a checkout line. It’s beginning to stretch beyond the treat wall and it’ll only be a matter of time before it snakes its way around down the toy aisle. For the sake of either normalcy or out of some sense of pure masochism, I tell her I don’t mind providing backup until the rush dies down. She asks if I’m sure, and I nod, then move over to the second register and begin.

4:56. The first customer is a balding man. He buys Purina Pro Plan. He is grumpy and clearly in a hurry. Thankfully for him, I am quick.

4:57. The second customer is a family of five. Just a few dog toys, though.

4:58. The third customer is a young woman—looks to be somewhere around my age—purchasing a betta. She sets the cup holding the betta on the counter, and I ask how she is.

“Feeling fishy,” she says.

I close my eyes, smile and nod. “Good one.”

I look at her for a moment—not too long of a look, but long enough. She is beautiful and her hair is long and chestnut and her eyes are something else.

We flirt for a moment. Not for too long—I do have a line forming behind her—but long enough to establish something.

I watch her leave the store, thinking of, remembering, the day I met Sasha. My first day.



I return to the second register.

The balding man with the Pro Plan.

Behind him, the family of five.

Then her.

Before her pun and before we flirt, she rhythmically bobs her head to U2’s sublime instrumentals.

She smiles when I tell her it’s the only song I listen to.



I ask the balding man with Purina Pro Plan if he has a Doped-Up Membership with us. He says he does and provides his phone number. Ask him to confirm his name, then ask if his email address is up-to-date. Ask him if he’d like to opt-in to our text message notifications. He’s slightly disturbed by the idea of automated text messages, but I warn him that if he refuses, he’ll miss out on discounts and other great deals. He grunts, which I take as a “yeah, sure.”

I ask the mother of her four children if she’s Doped-Up. Yes. I take her number. Confirm her name. Confirm her email. She loves the idea of text message notifications—keeps her up-to-date on deals.

Then it’s her, gently holding the betta cup with both of her hands.

I ask her if she’s Doped-Up. She nods, gives me her number.

Confirm her name: Abigail.

“Or Abby. Either is fine.”

Remember her name.

I notice her email ends in .edu. We talk about college. Less flirting this time around. I learn she goes to Mizzou and is only in town for the holidays. She’s studying to be a veterinarian. I grin and tell her she might be able to work at one of the Dogs-R-Dope pet hospitals someday if she plays her cards right. She scoffs and says she’s not a monster. I tell her not to opt-in to the text message notifications unless she wants to be reminded every five minutes that Science Diet is three dollars off this month.

I watch her leave the store.

I should be sad. She’s only in town for the week.

But I know now, with absolute certainty, that everything resets. Except me.



I’m in my element here. I can do no wrong. This is where I thrive. Sasha, of all people, should know this by now.



I don’t know what it is.

Maybe it’s the fact that every joke I drop will land with Abby, no matter how mediocre and no matter how poorly crafted. Maybe it’s because, through all our conversations, I learn that she too used to work in retail—Nordstrom—and understands the bullshit. Maybe it’s because she’s not Sasha. She’s not questioning why I’m still here, asking if I have any long-term plans or what our endgame is. She doesn’t even know how long I’ve worked here, or how many times Zeke has made me come in on a Saturday. She senses no weaknesses. And why would she? I’ve been Dawg of the Month eight times now, and she’s witnessing Oliver at his fucking peak. The end of my shift is where I’m at my strongest. That ephemeral moment where the exhaustion of the previous eight hours is subdued by the impending freedom.

It’s possible, too, that it’s none of these things and could be something as simple as the fact that I just straight-up look good today. I’ve always looked best in the winter.



I know now, no matter what, that when Abby leaves the store, the last thought to cross her mind before she is once again waiting in line behind the balding man and the family of five is that there is something between us. Even if it’s fleeting and can’t live beyond the automatic sliding glass doors.



This is it. I feel good.

I decide to let Bella handle the line while I return to the breakroom. I need to call Sasha—to apologize, to let her know that I still care about her, but the spark between us is gone.

She’s confused. A little angry, even.

I tell her I need space.

The tension rises but doesn’t crescendo.



Now, for the old college buddy.

When Bella relieves, I stop to say hello to Cerberus. Before his owner and I begin our usual inane small talk, I decide it’s best to be upfront: “I’m sorry, man. I’m drawing a blank.”

Fortunately, he smiles. “No worries. I haven’t worked at that Culver’s in a long time.”

Then it hits me! I feel so terrible—dude used to hit me up with a lot of free cookie dough concretes. I apologize again, but he’s fine. He understands. Like me, he is a master of customer service. I ask why he left Culver’s.

“Oh, I still work for the company. Just transferred to the one in O’Fallon. I’m a general manager now!”

“That’s really something.”

We talk a little more. He asks if I’m still dating Sasha.

In a way, yes.

Talking with him reminds me of my plans after work tonight. And how silly they sound.



Let’s go, Zeke.

I step into the time-clock room. He’s there, playing with that paper. He’s about to ask me to be a team player, but I’m ready now.

“Can’t do it,” I say. “Sorry, but I have plans that day. Hope it’s not a big deal.”

“I understand,” he says. “Figured I’d ask you first. I’ll find someone else.”

I shouldn’t have apologized. But I’ll work on that.



I return to the second register to provide backup for Bella, a spring in my step.



My mood is infectious. The balding man no longer grunts about his frustration with text message notifications. He’s actually kind of pumped. I ask the kids in the family of five about their dogs. They have three German Shepherds and a Dachshund. One for each child. I ask if they have a favorite.

They’re unanimous.

It’s Medusa the Dachshund.

I look forward to the balding man and the family of five just as much as I do Abby. She gets to see me charm the customers before her, so that by the time it’s her turn, she’s already comfortable. Already in a good mood.

I can tell. When she brings the betta cup, she smiles. I watch that smile, her lips, but remind myself not to stare.



I sometimes stand by the sliding glass door and watch the children on Mongooses. A good reminder that, without my interference, they’re alive and well. I haven’t bothered going back out, even though part of me wonders—I’ve broken up with Sasha, I’ve recognized the Culver’s general manager, I’ve stood up to Zeke. Does that change anything? I’m not sure.

The way I see it is this, though: I can either risk the death of another child, watch them fly over their Mongoose and land face first into brick, or I can spend my time with a woman who is always falling in love with me, in perpetuity.



There is the occasional loop, however, where anxiety creeps in. I’ll wonder if she is getting bored. I’m having trouble remembering exactly what I already know about her and what I don’t, so I can’t help but wonder if she’s sick of answering the same questions, laughing at the same jokes.

But when I think about it rationally, I know that’s not possible. This is her first and only time meeting me.



It’s possible, while confirming the balding man’s identity, I make too much eye contact with Abby. Or that I blush too soon. Or maybe our exchange this time around has less banter. There needs to be banter. I crack the betta joke before she does. It flops. I apologize and tell her it was stupid. I feel my face turn crimson as I hand her the receipt, my right hand shaking.



I don’t make eye contact this time and remind myself: she does not remember. Every new loop is a fresh start, and our previous conversations are non-existent. Remember: even though I have been falling in love with her for hours—developing a strong, stable love that lasts for lifetimes after the honeymoon phase, she only falls in love with me for the first time, remaining in said honeymoon phase, every time.

Still, I slip. When I’m done checking out the family of five, I sense some discomfort.

“Sorry,” I say.

She stiffens, taken aback. Then frowns. “For what?”

Oh. “Nevermind. It’s stupid. Do you have a membership with us today?”

She gives me her phone number. I confirm the email. Scan the fish. She pays. Receipt.

I want to tell her the betta joke again, but I’m not even sure how to phrase it anymore.

Maybe I’m overthinking.



I’m back in the breakroom. I need to call Sasha. Ask her for advice about women.

She’s confused.

I tell her there’s this beautiful girl in the store and I’m curious what I did wrong. I don’t want to make the same mistakes with Abby that I’ve made with her.

She is silent.

I’ve forgotten that we haven’t broken up yet.



Our argument, in many ways, continues where it left off. She doesn’t remember how it started, but if you’re with someone long enough, it doesn’t matter.



Like all arguments, there is a lull.



It’s not her, it’s me. I still care about her and want to remain friends.

We’re about to argue again. I can feel it.



I ask Proust for advice. He tells me that all worlds begin in darkness and all so end. The heart is no different. Darkness sprouts within it, grows, consumes it. Such is its nature.



I’m at the second register again, still seething over Sasha. I know I said hurtful things, and maybe it’s my fault for not remembering she didn’t have any time to grieve our first breakup. But she said some hurtful things to me, too. It’s both of us, not just me.

I’m less cordial with the balding man. When he grunts, I grunt. I tell him to have a nice day in a two-syllable response. The family of five infuriates me. Kids are loud and obnoxious. Dogs are in the way.

I’m distant with Abby. A little cold, too.

It’s possible she senses my frustration because she disarms me with her “feeling fishy” pun. Instantly, I’m relieved. I know her history, and she probably just assumes I’m a retail worker having a bad day, and she, having probably had her own share of similarly bad days at Nordstrom, knows how to lighten the mood.

I laugh at how bad of a joke it is. She smiles. We flirt. I watch her leave the store.

We’re good again. I know it.



Sometimes, I’ll slip up. I ask her an awkward question built upon an inside joke established in a previous loop. I make too much eye contact. I botch the betta joke. My eyes reveal to hers how much I want to kiss her.



All worlds begin in darkness and all so end. The heart is no different.



The slips don’t bother me as much as they used to. They happen to the best of us. I just know how to adapt to them now. Now, a slip-up isn’t the end, but merely a cue to begin the reset.

I take my newfound distance and coldness back to the register. Abby notices this and, with her previous retail customer service experience, disarms me.

“Feeling fishy.”

She falls for me again.

I can see it in her eyes.

Her smile.



If I need to reset the loop, I call Sasha. Begin the breakup.

If I need to regain courage and confidence, I tell Zeke I can’t work on Saturday.

If I need hope, I talk to the Culver’s general manager.

If I need an extra dose of depression, I let Proust tell me about darkness.

If I need to remember why I’m here in the first place, I watch the children on Mongooses.

If I need a breather, I grab the orthopedic dog bed, the pillow, the fleece blanket, and head to the breakroom. Plan ahead. For her.

This is all for you, Abby.





Abby. Man, she really is something else.



Kiss her, Oliver. She loves you. Let her know you feel the same. Stronger, even.



That’s a bad idea.



Are you sure? Just go right for it?



Hold on. Let me talk to Zeke real quick.



Culver’s general manager, too.



Here. There’s a moment in our exchange—just after she removes her debit card from the chip reader—where the receipt is printing. A pause. “With or Without You” is in its final minute of pure instrumentals. I hand her the receipt and tell her to have a nice day.

“You, too.”

As she reaches for the receipt, though, my hand grazes hers.

Another pause.

First, eye contact. Then, the smile.

I lean in and my lips meet hers. Close my eyes.

I can sense her surprise, for sure, but I know she doesn’t mind.

And if she does, it’s not like she’ll remember. We’ll just practice until it’s perfect.




Stephen Mruzik currently lives just outside St. Louis (on the Illinois side) after completing his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Colorado Boulder. His previous work can be found in Drunk Monkeys and Mikrokosmos Journal. He does not work at a pet store anymore.