“Spice of Life,” by Jeff Alphin

Oct 18th, 2023 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

There is no exact comparison to the anticipatory joy and adventure that comes with a visit to Hi’s Variety.

Despite the world of Amazon, and internet, we sometimes find ourselves with a need in the now, and without clear thought as to how “this thing” can be quickly procured. Be it a rubber gasket to retard the flow of the faucet stripped midstream in a botched DIY plumbing attempt, or the fat leather watchband from the 70s to perfectly accentuate the evening’s themed disco masquerade. A box of Stove Top stuffing is essential for one’s solo Thanksgiving, a 45-rpm record adaptor for the amateur DJ who left his at home. The proper adhesive to reattach our rear view mirror, and an army-man Battle of the Bulge playset to decorate the cake. Make no mistake, we’ll find all these treasures and so much more at Hi’s.

Our excitement builds as we walk the block and a half, speculating on a successful “stumping” of the neighborhood institution, which will leave us empty handed save for the bragging right, “We asked for it at Hi’s, and they didn’t have it!”

We will then be considered admirably eclectic people, our shopping list extraordinary.

Our eyes dance at the storefront window, from the commemorative Bowie knife, array of dulled and tarnished door handles, half-assembled Christmas train dioramas, and majorette trophy. The circular saw blades glint beside the metal toy trucks and cheap fishing equipment. Four faded paper perch adhered to the glass provide unconvincing window dressing effects of the catches that await us in the lake.

The thin wooden double doors welcome us with a jingle of yesterday’s bell. Stepping around the dented boxes of Sweet Love vinegar douche, we bypass shelves of dusty Meow Mix and canned soup to the right, and gloss over the tower of moldy books, mined from the ancient basements of the neighborhood, to the left. This is no time to get distracted. Pat has just said hello. There he stands behind the counter, next to the stand-up cooler of flat canned sodas, his calm demeanor and serene expression accentuated by pale blue eyes looking off into a middle distance. We see his brother Charlie foraging the store’s bottomless vault of inventory in the darker recesses of the back, where they keep the oil portrait of the woman purported to have gone down with the Titanic.

Were we to wander in too far we would surely get lost, only to awaken hours later with an armful of Wheel-O, a miniature ceramic outhouse, and a Chris Evert tennis racket from 1974, plastic still intact.

Here, help me unclasp my Timex.

“Hi, um, do you guys happen to have a battery to fit this?” we ask Pat.

Pat takes the watch and issues his standard line with a quiet, reassuring calm, refusing to concede that there exists any item on the planet that he did not at some time have in stock. A doctor who must break the news to the patient in need of a transplant that I’m sorry, but we’re all out of livers for the moment.

“I know we had some, but I’m not sure if we’ve got any left. I’ll check.”

Now, while Pat rummages, we are free to roam. No matter how lost you become amongst the glass displays, tottering stacks and crammed shelving, rest assured Pat will drag us back out.

Peruse the dusty jars of pork rind fishing bait. Contemplate the eBay value of the vintage Happy Meal toys. Debate the expiration date of Gaines-Burgers. Peer into the off limits behind the counter, searching for the rumored screen painting tools of East Baltimore resident, legendary sideshow freak, Johnny Eck. “The Half-Man.”

Pat is back now, with a selection of watch batteries that are obviously too large or too small for the watch, and an old plastic Swatch with a flag of Switzerland on the face.

“I’ve got these, they might work, or else you could have this one. Say…seven dollars?”

Despite the sign in the window announcing “Watch Batteries”, we are no longer confident Pat will understand the innards of the watch. “That’s okay, Pat, we were really just hoping to get this one running again.”

Pat stands there, watch and batteries in the cup of his hand, unperturbed, allowing us one last chance to make an offer. With a show of palms and a thank you, we turn for the door, secretly hoping for Pat’s good-natured signature bait and switch.

“These flashlights just came in. No batteries. All you have to do is shake them.” Pat demonstrates, and clicks on the weak beam. “Two dollars.”

We smile and fish our pockets, counting the single and four quarters into Pat’s hand. There is no register, only a small money box hidden under that pile of notebooks. Given a five, he would have made change out of his pocket. Pat draws up the receipt. The bell announces our departure as we leave the proud owners of a weak flashlight that will surely cease to work in the coming weeks, and another notch in our belts of experience at Hi’s Variety.


Jeff Alphin lives and writes with his wife, Jane, in Baltimore, MD. His work is included in The Best of Fiction on the Web, Lowestoft Chronicle, Tiny Spoon, and A Thin Slice of Anxiety.

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