Tai holds his face like a poker hand behind the steel bars and bullet proof glass that crown the walk up-window of his corner liquor store.
His carefully cultivated expression greets all customers equally: from the young student who comes in to buy 8$ bottles of wine almost every night on his credit card, muttering excuses and apologies, to the disheveled woman who arrives in the early afternoon and pays for her Maddog with crumpled dollars from a shaking hand. Though he has the obligatory bud-lite/tits posters, worn linoleum floors, and buzzing neon signs, Tai runs a tighter ship than most: his haircut and mannerisms are as tidy as the sidewalk outside the storefront.
Tai always smiles energetically and small-talks effortlessly, but his eyes remain cool and his lips are often tinged with an uneasy tightness. He knows us on a first name basis and he knows our vices. Our usual is almost always sitting there by the register in a brown paper bag by the time we make a full circuit of the shelves, looking for sales.
He takes 20$ from a fat man in sweat pants, in exchange for two bottles of shitty rum. That's when you notice that Tai's face only slips once his hand touches the money--and then a flicker of embarrassment, or maybe horror, crosses his eyes as he briefly computes the ridiculous profit of feeding our addictions. Indeed, Tai's business is is doing well: he has recently expanded to cigarettes and blunt wraps to appease the under-21-set who hang in the coffee shop next door; the high school punk kids in all their desperate rebellion prove to be reliable Camel purchasers. And by sundown on friday, Tai's store will be crowded with laborers who just got off their shifts and are desperate to escape from their tired bones and squalling children, cashed paychecks in hand.
Tai is a long way from Cambodia, doing better than he ever could have dreamed (he recently purchased a GMC Yukon), but he's starting to have trouble sleeping. He smiles again, with that tiny hint of pain, as he pushes the box of liquor across the worn countertop and takes a wad of cash out of my hand. He half-bows over the tops of the bottles, as if to apologize for all of this, and tells me to be careful! it icy outside!