Basic Skills

Roger McKnight

Photo Credit: Caren Litherland (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Caren Litherland (CC-by-nc-nd)

Jake Bauer’s Jiffy Buy got stranded on a bad block. No essential services or decent parking. So the company had hired Jake to bring in customers. Like always, he’d started his day shift in the early morning darkness. Now he was standing idly at the till looking out on the fading December day. The glow from speeding cars reflected off the storefront windows, while the few stragglers outside hurried on, bent over against the wind.

Across the street Jake spotted a one-legged guy in an Army fatigue. He scooted along in a rickety wheelchair, guiding it with a long, skinny leg and spinning the wheels by hand. At the corner the fellow eased over the low curb and out into traffic, navigating between honking cars and freezing slush till he struggled across to Jake’s side. He used his leg to maneuver up over the curb.

On the sidewalk, the guy looked up at Jiffy Buy’s neon, as the first snowflakes started falling. They fluttered down, turning red and blue in the flashing light. Then he turned and studied a help-wanted sign Jake had just put up. Cashier Needed. Good Customer Service. Basic Math Skills. Ability to Stand for Long Periods. He pushed the automatic door opener and wheeled in from the cold.

Jake studied the guy’s stump, with the pants leg folded under it, and his hands, calloused from spinning the wheelchair. “Whadda ya need, pal?”

“A job. I’m Al.”

“Tough times? Pawned your prosthesis?” Jake asked.

Al nodded.

“Gulf War? Iraq?”

Al stroked his graying stubble. “No, ’Nam.”

“Afghanistan here.”

Al nodded again. “Figures.”

“I was tempted, but hung onto mine,” Jake said. He lifted his right arm and showed an artificial hand.

“I can work.”

“We need somebody can walk.”

Al glanced at the cash register. “You run that thing with one hand?”

“It’s hard,” Jake agreed, “but I can walk to it. You can’t.”

“Your sign says stand. All I need’s a chance.”

“Hours of standing. Can you?”

Al clucked his tongue.

“Meaning no,” Jake guessed. He went on studying his shabby visitor and thought about their downtrodden block. “Go redeem your limb,” Jake said and gave him a wad of cash. “Come back tomorrow.”

“See you then.”

The flakes started pecking more angrily at the windowpanes. Rush-hour traffic was still flying by, workers heading off for better places, Jake thought. At eight he turned out the Jiffy Buy lights. The snow was sticking now, so he followed Al’s wheel tracks. As Jake crossed the street, motorists slowed for him and nobody honked. Their car tires obliterated the trail Al had left in the deepening snow. Jake walked on, never looking back at his own tracks.

pencilRoger McKnight is a native of downstate Illinois; he now lives in Minnesota. He teaches Swedish, but he writes mostly in English. He has degrees from Southern Illinois University and the University of Minnesota. He has worked and studied in Sweden and Puerto Rico. He has published some in smaller journals along with one novel, Out of the Ashes (2014) and a book of creative non-fiction, Severed Ties and Silenced Voices (2009). Email: rmcknigh[at]

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