Chapter 3: Under a Bare Lightbulb

The clerk looked up from the coffee machine as something slammed into the glass doors at the other end of the store. Her hands, busy milking steaming brown liquid into a customer's paper cup, stayed at the controls of the mechanical cow as her head twisted around to the source of the disturbance.
A man, thin and wearing dark clothes, floundered at the door from outside. He was on his knees and his hands jerked and fluttered at the handle, as if he couldn't quite gain control of them. The customers in the store watched his desperate movements with blank, uncomprehending stares, which soon turned into uncomfortable and worried glances. Perhaps he was having a heart attack?
A fountain of coffee overflowed over the side of the clerk's paper cup and gushed over her left hand; she yelped and wrenched it away from the flood. The stinging skin jolted her into action, and with her senses now fully alert with the pain, she grabbed a towel to wrap around the wound and leapt over the counter to the rescue. A nearby customer turned off the coffee machine.
Since the door was meant to be pulled from the outside and pushed from within, the clerk had some trouble getting the helpless heart attack victim out of the way in order to get to him. She knelt down on the concrete and grabbed the man's shoulder's, which heaved convulsively in her grip. He didn't look like he was having a heart attack.
His eyes were tightly shut against her inspection and his chin was resting on his chest, making it hard to see anything else besides the top of his head. His breathing was coming in slower under her touch, though. The pale faces of the customers craned their necks to peer outside at the spectacle taking place on the sidewalk, and eager to remove herself from their inquisitive eyes, the clerk placed her arm around the man's waist and began heaving him inside. He was disturbingly light, as if he hadn't eaten for months and would eventually drift into nothingness.
There was a small, cramped back room in the coffee shop that was used mainly for storage purposes. A dim light dusted the walls as the clerk yanked on the flimsy string connected to the bare lightbulb in the ceiling. She sat the man down on a cardboard box that accepted his frail weight with little resistance, and closed the door behind them.
"Are you okay?" she asked in a hushed voice, turning back to face the man. "Do you need something to drink?" She remembered the cup she had spilled while watching his struggle at the door and hoped the other clerk had had the sense to clean it up. She knelt down in front of the man, and gently grasped his shoulders again, trying to get him to look at her. He mumbled something.
She cocked her head. "What?" He didn't answer, but shivered and bowed his head until his hair licked at his knees. The clerk noticed that it didn't look as if he had washed his hair for about a month. Her grip loosened slightly.
They sat there for a few minutes, the dirty walls flickering yellow as the lightbulb above them struggled to maintain its feeble light. The man was still, forehead still brushing the top of his dusty thighs, and only when his saviour began to pull away did he move.
Head still bowed, the fingers of his right hand reached up to encircle her wrist in a pale, weak cuff, and she removed it easily. "I'll be right back," she reassured him, wondering if she should call an ambulance. Or maybe the police. "I have a job to do. I'll be right back. I'll come back. Just wait here."
Still soothing him from the doorway as she turned to leave, the clerk was halfway out into the corridor when she heard the man speak.
His voice was rusted through and laced with holes that made his speech crack and skip like a boy undergoing the worst of puberty. She couldn't tell tone from monotone; the whole question seemed to be grated painfully out of some long buried source, crackling and dying on the way. But she heard what he said clear enough.
"What's your name?"
She paused with her back to him, her thoughts flickering once more to the image of the phone under the counter, and who she should call to apprehend this potentially dangerous person. But she knew she wouldn't touch even the reciever. "My name's Etta," she replied.
The syllables of her name hung like bullets suspended in the dead air, as if they had been coughed gutterally from the machine gun of her lips. That was the way her name had always sounded, to strangers and herself alike. She didn't bother with revealing a last name, although it seemed as though she should have. She didn't wait for the shells of her name to hit the floor.
Instead she ran, slamming the door behind her and trotting quickly down the short hallway to her accustomed place behind the counter, and her shoes slid unpleasantly in the coffee spreading on the tiled floor. She grabbed a mob to clean up the puddle, and spent fifteen minutes sopping the mess, trying to forget about the voice in the backroom.