John P. Loonam
Two weeks after Emily broke off our engagement, I found myself in the Bed Bath and Beyond on 6th Avenue,
returning a pair of champagne flutes and hoping to see her returning other wedding presents; I didn’t.
She wasn’t returning my phone calls either, so maybe returning was another thing she wasn’t doing anymore,
to go along with marrying me.
The bridal section was not crowded. It was June and if you were registering for any wedding before
New Year’s you were already too late. The women that were browsing there had a casual, what’s the
rush attitude and I stood near the silverware patterns and watched a young, pretty blonde woman examining
china patterns. She lifted a coffee cup to her lips, smiling as if imagining some after-dinner conversation
in her perfect future, then set the cup down and pushed her cart out past a wall of cake plates.
When I got home there was a delivery waiting with the doorman. It was a 10-piece set of anodized aluminum
cookware by Calphalon delivered from Bed Bath and Beyond courtesy of Emily’s cousin Marcos, the broker.
I imagined someone packing and shipping the thing while I was in the store, and wondered how it had beaten me home.
I remembered wandering through all three floors examining pillowcases and rubber spatulas and shower
caddies, with Emily checking off our preferences as we walked. I remember being bored;
now I knew I should have been frightened.
I dragged the box of cookware into the bedroom, already filled with small appliances, shower curtains,
and picture frames—the world of bath and beyond gathered up like Noah’s material ark, waiting for a flood.
The bed, the dresser, and the floor were covered—I was sleeping on the couch in the other room
because I could barely enter this one, and all of it had to go back. Maybe Emily had left it all for me to
keep, as if in some kind of consolation. But what was I to do with two 100% cotton bathrobes, or
matching sterling silver frames, suitable for portraits?
The following evening, I returned to Bed Bath and Beyond, dragged a chair over from outdoor furnishings and
watched people pick out coffee makers until the store closed. Coffee makers are universal—old and young came to compare pot sizes and brewing times, couples tried to come to a decision together: 8 cups? 12 cups? A thermal-carafe? They leaned together and read the boxes, or separated calling out to each other details about timers and energy ratings. At 9:45 there was a kind of last call announced, telling shoppers to be sure to complete purchases before closing time. That was the first time I noticed Manny moving through the aisles, resettling displays, making notes to restock merchandise. I slid the heavy metal chair with oak leaves in the armrests back to its spot at a patio table, and went home to microwave dinner.
I often circled back to coffee makers, but spent time testing peelers and zesters, looking at shaving mirrors and soap dishes. I tried out a brush that cleaned ceiling fans and used a computer program that matched the colors on sheets and bedspreads. Manny finally approached me while I was adjusting the number on a personalized mattress system.
“If you was a chick I would help you find the perfect number,” he laughed.
He punched my shoulder and took my hand through a complicated set of shakes and wiggles and then threw himself down on the mattress and slapped the side, inviting me to take a seat.
“I see you here like you are some sort of inspector or something, and I figure to just avoid you. But then I seen you playing with the refrigerator magnets and I said ‘He ain’t no fuckin’ inspector.’”
Manny worked security at night, always starting an hour before closing time to watch for shoplifters.
He told me right away that he, too, liked looking at the customers. “Everybody buying things, like they
must got houses big as, shit, big as houses!” He laughed at his own amazement.
“I’m from the projects. My mom
cooked every meal with two pots, the big one and the small one.” He put his hands behind his
head and stared up at the ceiling. “That’s why I get a kick out of watching the shopping.”
He sipped from the pint of Bacardi he kept in his pocket and passed it to me.
“But you don’t get no kind of kick. You always real serious.”
We met several times a week, always right before closing. We would wander around a bit, then meet in outdoor furniture, drink Manny’s Bacardi and talk about what we had seen.
“Did you see those two men arguing over towels? I thought you were going to have to separate them.”
“Skinny dude was like ‘Those are the same stripes you had when you were with Richard!’”
“Apparently the color was different.”
“I can’t believe skinny man bought that lie—‘Oh I see the blue now...’ Kiss and make up right in the store an' shit.”
“Have you noticed that people spend a lot of time picking out towels?”
“Yo, I worked at Sports Authority, and you should see white guys—no offense—white guys shopping for golf clubs.
You’d think they were buyin’ a second dick.”
“Where do people put all this stuff?” I called out to the empty store.
“What shelves and cabinets they must have? And then what to they do with all those styrofoam peanuts,
God I hate those peanuts. And then you have to use it all. You have to process food and and put
pictures in the frames, and live some sort of life that someone would want to take pictures of in the
first place. How do they do all this?” And I threw my arms out, knocking over a stack of plastic
drinking glasses in bright summery colors, sending them bouncing down the aisle towards the citronella candles.
“Hey,” Manny said. “Try not to break shit—I don’t want to have to throw you out.”
I came in on a Thursday at lunch to examine a humidifier that could fill an 8x16 foot room
with the cleansing power of steam in fifteen minutes, when Emily came up out of the escalator
hugging a queen-sized comforter cover to her chest. I ducked into kitchen utensils and grabbed a colander.
Holding it in front of my face allowed me to watch Emily through the holes as she moved directly
through the main aisle, not even slowing down at slow cookers. A month ago we had spent an hour
in slow cookers.
She was no longer browsing, just running in to pick up a comforter cover. It looked familiar—blue and gray
cubes cleverly outlined in pastel green. Her Aunt Clarissa had made us a quilt with the same color scheme.
It was only partially unwrapped from its brown paper, stacked on the pile on our bed.
I had left three messages asking her to come by and get it. Emily was never going to come by to get it,
never going to call me to arrange a pick up or ask me to bring it by her office.
She was not going to volunteer to do half the returns, or help carry things to the post office,
or have a meeting to discuss what we could keep in good conscience.
I fell into step behind her in the aisle, staying slightly to the right so I could pretend to examine
olive oil misters or hair-dryers if she turned, but she kept moving. I had to skip step double-time just
to keep up with her, and got a flick of muscle memory of every walk we had ever taken together—her legs moving
like pistons while mine sort of floated through motions that resembled walking.
I loved the swinging of her pelvis and hated myself for loving it.
She zipped past clock radios and I had to jog to catch up, still holding the colander up to block my face,
when Emily stopped and bent low to look at a laundry basket and I bumped directly into her,
lost my balance and fell forward over her back. She twisted herself around to standing and pushed
the comforter cover against the chest of me, her attacker, shoving me back against a shelf of Tupperware.
Burpable storage bins bounced on the shelves behind me. I slapped the colander onto the
shelf as if that was where if belonged.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I’m buying a comforter cover,” she smiled. Maybe she was glad to see me, maybe just trying to ratchet
down the confrontation.
“What about Aunt Clarissa’s quilt?” I asked, my voice almost cracking.
She paused and looked over her shoulder at the cash register, her desire to escape tense in her shoulders and jaw.
“Look, Jeremy...” her head was turning this way and that now, like she was expecting some help.
“I got your messages about the gifts, about returning...dividing...” Then her eyes found mine,
and that moment of fear was over. “I don’t want anything. If you need help mailing things
back I can send over Caroline, but I don’t want to be bothered. I need a clean slate.”
And my voice did crack. “A clean slate? You mean I get to keep the toaster oven and the blender?
I get both the everyday dishes and the good china? What am I supposed to do with your brother’s Ray
Charles obsession, or your father’s opinions of Obamacare, or that memory of the beach at Cape May? Do I have to keep that? What am I going to
do with all those towels?”
By the time Manny appeared at my side I was screaming, but I did not want to stop. He took my elbow
and tried to lead me away, saying, “Sir, I wonder if you could step over here for a moment,” and then whispering,
“Yo, dude keep it cool, you gonna make someone call the fuckin’ cops,”
He tried to turn me toward the door, but I pulled away. I know that when he grabbed my arm
with both hands he was trying to help, but, as I turned towards him and Emily took the chance
to skitter backwards, away from me, I heard my own voice howling and I punched Manny in the face.
There are plainclothes security officers in all the big box stores. They say it’s because of 9-11,
but they were probably always there for shoplifters and customers that cause a disturbance.
People like me. You don’t see them because they walk around pushing carts of merchandise and looking
as overwhelmed as everyone else. But they see you. If you pause in front of a display of items
and look over your shoulder suspiciously, if you reach into your bag, if you circle one display too often,
they notice. And if you crash into your ex-fiancé screaming an incoherent diatribe about possessions,
about relationships, about your own loneliness, then punch an employee, they’re going to jump you.
I remember Manny clutching his nose, blood leaking from between his knuckles, as I was dragged to the ground.
I was still shouting when they pulled me up and handcuffed me. I kicked over a row of chrome kitchen garbage
cans as they dragged me from the store.
After my three days of court-mandated testing at Bellevue, and after Emily’s father, in an act of unfathomable
kindness, agreed to be my lawyer and secured a suspended sentence, I returned everything.
First I made four trips to the post office, mailing boxes to Crate and Barrel and William Sonoma and Aunt Clarissa.
Then I watched the men from Restoration Hardware carry out the bed. Finally, I emptied my bedroom of everything,
precariously overloaded two shopping carts, and pushed the last of the wedding gifts to Sixth Avenue.
I wound my way through the aisles to Customer Service and found Manny had been promoted to Returns.
He had a bandage that did not quite cover the split across the bridge of his nose.
I just pushed the pile of gift receipts across the counter and mumbled apologies to my feet, too ashamed to
look up at him. I began piling things up on the counter—the coffee grinder, the sandwich maker,
the no-squeeze mop handle, all of it. Manny did not even look at me, but typed furiously into the
computer and slid boxes off the counter onto the conveyor belt behind him. Each item moved through a
dirty plastic curtain into oblivion. When we were almost finished, when there was only a last set of wine
glasses, he spoke.
“Keep something,” he said.
“No, I can’t.”
“You said it.”
“When my dudes Brody and Calypso was draggin' you out the store, you kept yelling back at
the bitch, ‘Keep something! Please Keep Something!’”
He pushed the purple box towards me.
“You can.” He opened the box and took out the glasses. They were hand-painted to look like blooming flowers,
and I would never use them. Manny leaned over the counter and looked up and down the aisle to make
sure we were alone, then took the Bacardi from his pocket and poured a bit of rum into each glass.
He held his up in a silent toast, and then drank. I sniffed at the cloying caramel flavor —then tossed it
back and put the glass down on the counter next to his. Manny put them back into the ugly purple box,
and pushed it towards me.
“Have a nice day,” he said. “Thank you for shopping.”
©2011 by John P. Loonam