The Customer by Jeremy Hawkins

For Allison, whose hair was short and mussed, and arms thick with muscle from years of rock climbing, it wasn't unusual to be addressed as sir. Accustomed to this insult, she even enjoyed confronting it with half-smug humor; but when the man in the gray suit—a customer of the camping store where she worked—called her “sir,” three times as she showed him a two-man tent, she felt justified in saying

“I’m sorry, you keep calling me sir.”

“Excuse me?” the man said.

“I’m female.”

He looked at her directly for the first time; his tired eyes widened.

“Oh—oh my—I wouldn’t have—dear Lord.”

Here Allison took up the magnanimity she’d perfected over the years; she closed her eyes, smiled gently, and mouthed, It’s okay.

“No!” the man said. “It’s not okay!”

“Please don’t worry. Now, about this tent. It sleeps two comfortably, but—”

“Ma’am—miss—ma’am,” he said, “I’m so sorry, ma’am. I’ve never in my life—you can’t imagine how embarrassed—I never meant to offend.”

Again Allison attempted to appease him.

“That’s just the rudest thing,” the man went on. “I’m sorry a thousand times. Why did I… I’m just so out of it.”

He looked down at his dusty brown shoes. “That’s the perfect phrase. Out of it.”

Unsure how to placate him, and now more irritated by his over-the-top apologies than by his earlier sirs, Allison found herself saying:

“Maybe, in the future, you could look at the person who’s helping you.”

The man’s face went flat; Allison thought he might collapse. Had she been too harsh? It was at this point she noticed his gray suit was wrinkled at the elbows and knees, as if he’d been sleeping in it, and that his green-and-yellow tie was fastened above one corner of his collar.

“I’m—I’m just so sorry,” he said. “You’ve been very helpful. You’re so knowledgeable. I had no idea there was so much to know about tents. I had a tent when I was a kid, a brown tent... but it was a dinosaur compared to this… this beauty. What’s worse is that I’m wasting your time. I’m not going to purchase anything—”


“Listen: every morning I wake up and kiss my wife and make coffee and head to work.” He looked at Allison intensely. “But I lost my job. My wife doesn’t know. I drive around, burning gas I can’t afford. I window shop and never buy anything. Sure, I look for work, I sit in the café down the street with my laptop; I send resumes. Not a single response in two months! One day, my wife saw me in the café. She walked in with our baby. She asked what I was doing. I told her, ‘I’m taking a few hours to finish a report.’ I knew all the people working at the café. They heard me lying! To my own wife!”

The man wept. He leaned forward, pressing his palms into the wrinkled knees of his pants. He stumbled backwards and sat on a wooden crate where rope and headlamps were stored.

“I’d buy this tent if I could.”

Allison found herself kneeling. She placed a hand on the weeping man’s shoulder, but he wrenched his arm violently away from her. Allison yelped, drawing the attention of the shop’s other employees.

“I didn’t ask for your pity.” The man’s eyes had turned glassy and unfocused, “I called you sir. Is that the worst thing that ever happened to you? At a glance you look like a man. Your muscles? Your jaw line? Then you say to me, ‘Look at the person who’s helping you.’ Well guess what—I’m looking!” Allison backed away, only half-following his words.

“You work in a camping store,” he went on. “Pissing your life away. You listen to music and camp by beautiful rivers and talk to people like they’re fools. But I can’t piss my life away. I have a family! I look at you and I see—” but he wasn’t looking at her—he was looking and yelling at the floor.

Two other employees had joined Allison, and she was laughing nervously and explaining the situation to them in a low voice; seeing this, the man stopped yelling; he knew he should apologize again; a security guard was on him, grappling his neck and jostling him toward the shop’s exit. The man laughed wildly, as if pleased by the sudden pain. The security guard whispered calm imprecations into his ear, and he screamed that he’d love to fill out an application to work in the camping store. “An application! I demand an application!” he howled. The security guard tightened his hold, pinching a vein running to the man’s brain when the man’s senses began to dim.

Before him flashed the image of camping with his wife, by a crystal blue river, a fantasy he'd entertained as long as he could remember. He decided that tonight he would tell her everything. Then he passed out.

Jeremy Hawkins is a graduate of the MFA Program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he was the recipient of the Morton Fellowship. He is also founder of The Distillery (, a consortium of editors, writers, and artistic ne'er-do-wells who provide proofreading and copy editing services for creative projects. His fiction has appeared in 100 Word Story. Jeremy currently lives and writes in Chapel Hill, NC.