At the Good Looking Shop-a-Lot
I didn't have much of a choice. There was no money, and since I flew well under the scholarship radar, it was settled: I wasn't going to college in the fall. Shortly after graduation, I put in an application at the Shop-a-Lot, and when I got a position at the good-looking one, I called it compensation. I say this because The Bad Looking Shop-a-Lot could have phoned just as easily, and that would have meant interminable summer days of stocking dented cans of beans, rotating expired milk and cheese, mopping up after the impoverished and infirm that clogged the aisles, and keeping clear of the glares from jaded managers, their mustaches like padlocks clicking down over cigarette smelling mouths. Instead, I had the good fortune of striding down brightly waxed floors, arranging produce that shined like jewels, and, most importantly, watching tight-jeaned and skimpy-skirted girls from the university stroll in for ciders and hard lemonades on weekend nights, laughing and leaning against each other by the walk-in fridge. I might not have been heading off to college that fall, but, in many ways, I was privy to the next best thing.
One Saturday afternoon in June, as I was unpacking cartons of perfectly ripe bananas, a shopping cart squeaked my way, guided by the long brown hands of a young woman whose eyes I did not dare to meet. It was clear she wasn't simply seeking out Red Romes or Bartletts -- she was looking for me! God, how I'd both waited for and feared such an occasion -- at least since the early ugly days of high school, which in my mind appeared as one long lonely afternoon in the back of a classroom, socially debilitated by chronic bologna breath and Sears corduroys smooth with age.
"Let's see," the girl said by way of greeting, "how do I put this?"
A brown and blonde swirl of hair spun past cheeks still plump with baby fat, resting against bun colored shoulders. The ironic twist of her lips marked her as a student from the university. Even though it was summer, Clerestory was filled with them, enrolled in courses to finish the degree more quickly or making up courses they failed the previous semester.
"I'm looking for condoms," she said.
A delicate gold cross dipped into her cleavage.
"If you could tell me the aisle?"
In black letters across a field of gray, her T-shirt read: "Property of No One."
"I think," I sputtered, my voice warbling like a prepubescent boy. "I think aisle seven. Hygiene and...things."
Her cart contained alfalfa sprouts and a tub of plain yogurt.
"Hmm," she purred, eyebrows arched like churches. "Lucky ducky aisle seven."
At this point, I committed my attention to the unblemished skins of my bananas. As I lay the next bunch in the crib of artificial grass, suddenly an immaculate face -- it was hers, of course -- moved between mine and the fruit, and she goofy-smiled a "Thanks," her eyes round as playground balls. I didn't have the courage to look up until she'd disappeared from view.
Minutes later, as I was wheeling empty cartons back to the stockroom, I noticed the girl again, this time moving through the express lane. She nonchalantly laid out her sprouts and yogurt and condoms on the conveyor belt and dug for money in her nylon shorts. My eyes dropped to her smooth, tanned calves. There was a breath-catching pinkness to the bottom of her feet, which rose from sandals as she grabbed the plastic bag and left. I thought she could sense me, hovering behind a shrink-wrapped pallet of bathroom disinfectant. She seemed to be performing, flaunting her goods like those weekend girls I had come to know in my surreptitious way. But she never turned to offer another childlike smile, or even a coy wave goodbye. She was simply gone -- out of my chronically uneventful life.
In the coming days, this girl swirled back into my thoughts. It may sound funny to say, but in my eighteen years, with the exception of mother and my more suffocating aunts, I'd never been as close to another woman as I'd been to that girl's cherubic face. Early on in high school, I had come to the conclusion that just as some guys were better in sports or debate or writing, so too were some guys better with girls. There was no shame in the fact that I wasn't one of them. After all, what girl could have borne the proximity of my Christmas bulb nose, my cheeks scored from acne? But seeing that sprout and yogurt girl's face up close -- the impeccable architecture of those teeth, the blue party balloon eyes, not to mention breathing in the cinnamon of her breath, the subtle scent of citrusy perfume -- filled me with longing that struck like lightning from my brain into the untapped cask of my heart. The image of her was with me so often, I began to engage it in pleasant conversation. How are you today? Looking beautiful, as always. I just love the way your lips pucker before you open your mouth to speak. And how I adore the creamsicle coloring of the bottom of your feet! So smooth. So vulnerable.
Such were my daytime fantasies, my vacations from the mundane reality of stocking produce. I'd stroll with that image to classes, where we'd learn about the complex world that was waiting for us outside the protective walls of academe. We'd meet in the cafeteria for lunch, sit under the buckeye trees on the quad and read romantic verse. But always at the end of these reveries, I'd see that delicate gold cross, that impish smile. I'd hear her asking, "Do you have condoms?" In that moment, the image would dissipate, leaving me alone and ashamed, ashamed because I want to say yes, yes, in fact let's go to the park or my car or your room and use them now. One night at the dinner table, as mom plopped a spoonful of lumpy potatoes on my plate, dad yawned and asked, "Why so down?" What was I to say? That there's this beautiful face, and pink skin on the bottom of feet, a crucifix, and the gold ribbing of rubbers?
Every day, I scanned the aisles for her, hoping she'd return to put that lovely face in front of mine again. This time, I vowed to kiss it. I would just punch out my lips and smack that goofy smile and she could slap me, for all I cared. Unfortunately, only other girls came. Sometimes they broke out into laughter just as they passed me, and Lord knows what that meant. They also liked to stand around in produce, chatting about annoying professors or adorable guys, sometimes even personal things -- tampons and such. I stood just feet away, the invisible stock boy. Once, a cute brunette dropped a tomato and when she crouched to retrieve it, I spied the thin vertical banding of her thong. Although that certainly gave me something to conjure with for awhile, the image burned in my imagination for a brief time only. Always -- whether at work, in front of the television, or during quiet, lethargic family meals -- the sprout and yogurt girl's face returned, and more strongly than ever, shimmering before me like heat across the blacktop of the Shop-a-Lot.
Two months later, as I was rooting through produce for expired goods, I felt someone approach behind me. Sometimes, Mr. Unser, my manager, would sneak up on employees and clap or call our names so suddenly we'd jump half out of our white shirts and ties. He enjoyed our reactions tremendously, for they provided ready-made opportunities for lectures about the relative fortitude of our characters. When I whirled, expecting to catch Unser the moment before his springing, I saw not my manager but my sprout and yogurt girl -- not the daydream of her either, but the real, gorgeous thing. She was paler now, and that rich pancake batter hair had been tied behind her ears, giving her skin a disturbing tightness. She was still pretty, of course, but there was something wrong -- a quavering of the lips, an earthquake in the eyes that signaled disaster.
"Where are," she spoke at last, "where are the...pregnancy tests?"
I felt a soft plaintive reverberation in the ears, but the question failed to register immediately in my brain. I was too busy formulating my own unforgettable words -- words that would compel her to stay around this time, to talk with me, to find out what a great person I was...words which, when all was said and done, came out as a simple, disappointing "hello."
For a moment, she almost forgot herself with a smile. I saw it tugging, pulling like the jaw of a dog against the grimness of the news I was just then comprehending. Then, her hips slanted, and the lips that for a moment seemed to be curving toward a smile flattened out like an EKG. "The pregnancy tests?" she demanded.
"We don't carry them." This was a lie, of course. The Good-Looking Shop-a-Lot had, as their slogan promised, "Everything for Everybody." But there was absolutely no way on earth I was going to be complicitous in the possible pregnancy of this girl -- this cocky co-ed who once thrust her face in mine and, if I could only conjure up the right magic words, might be compelled to do so again.
Her blue eyes tumbled like knocked over glass, and she flapped away in sandals with a dismissive wave of the hand. I followed to the aisle I knew she'd eventually find -- "lucky ducky" seven. Peeking from behind an end cap display of diapers, I watched her skimming the wall of products like the pages of a textbook.
I stepped forward, and she turned, her eyes hidden by the spidery black of mascaraed lashes, hands pressing against her hips. A smooth brown band of skin popped out between her white tank top and shorts. The sight caused a softening in my chest, like butter left out on our kitchen counter.
"You're not pregnant." These were good words, I thought. Potent words, words she'd want to hear.
"What in God's name do you know?"
My mind whirred, but no sounds resembling intelligible language were forthcoming.
"Rob Justice to the compactor, please."
I looked up at the speaker like it was rain, then back toward her, waiting for another sweet cinnamon smile, but she just stood in front of the wall of products, deep in the throes of her choice, until Unser called my name again. I had to leave her in that aisle, angry or relieved I did not know, but definitely alone.
I usually enjoyed seeing the boxes crinkle, listening to them pop and rip over the drill sounds of the compactor. Thumb jammed deep into the button, I would thrill to a feeling of power lacking from most other aspects of my life. That day, however, I felt as though the compactor were smashing my own young, innocent bones, the shards perforating vital organs and causing mortal pain. Heading back to produce, I looked down each aisle, but the girl was nowhere to be found. Maybe, when I was picking out flaccid green peppers, she would surprise me with that cute and comical face. Just let her try and I would touch that nose with mine, I would kiss those cinnamon sugar lips. She would feel the pressure of my passion and know for sure that, into the life we would begin to create, there would be no baby falling. It would just be Rob and the sprout and yogurt girl, whatever her name was.
As I was sweeping up for the night, I stopped in aisle seven, and stood in front of the pregnancy tests. All the packages were pink or white or powder blue, featuring pictures of healthy happy women, their skin shining, their eyes giddy and unconflicted. On the back of one brand, the directions read: "LAY ON FLAT SURFACE." That was the first time I imagined her in the act, on a fraternity bed, head rolled to the side, blonde hair lifeless off the side of the mattress, the specter of a robust young man moving over top of her, his passion driving to a point past which he was too hard to see. On the bottom shelf was a folded up piece of notebook paper -- a phone number, a grocery list scratched in agitated script. Why couldn't the number be hers, left behind for me to find? If I knew anything about women, it was how indirect they could be. Angry, they might smile and say nothing. Attracted to you, they might flick their hair or touch themselves on the face...or leave a phone number behind, knowing you'd be by to pick it up. A moment ago, I was keenly aware of the ludicrous nature of my desire. Now, I could actually fantasize about having a chance.
At home that night, I caressed the paper for awhile, lovingly, like a hand, imagining it was hers, that she had left it behind so I could pull her through space and time and misery toward my cradling arms. After a few, panic-stricken false starts, I dialed. Several rings later, an automated message clicked on: "Hello, you've reached the Clerestory office of Planned Parenthood..."
I hung up and stared at the smooth black bone of the receiver, thinking of the variety of things this could mean.
The next morning, dad was called in to work a double shift again, which meant I had to go food shopping with my mother. Since the Bad Looking Shop-a-Lot was right down the street from our house, we went there. Working at the campus store, I had become accustomed to a world in which dreams seemed more likely, and possibilities rife. The place was continually invigorated by the presence of college kids shopping in preparation for coming pleasure: football tailgating, weekend keggers, late night munchies, and frat house trysts. At the Bad Looking Shop-a-Lot, patrons shopped to stave off the adverse affects of frailty, squinting at the fine print in the vitamin aisle, lining up at the pharmacy with prescriptions in their shaking hands. The rest of the customers were the Clerestory poor, lower middle class types like us, but also those worse off, the people who lived in trailers on the outskirts of town and dragged a half dozen kids to the store to help them pile up on chips and pop and prepackaged foods.
"What would you like?" mom asked, wrists balanced on the cart, shuffling through a seemingly endless stack of coupons in the middle of the cereal aisle. "I've got a dollar off on Cinnamon Life."
What I wanted was to escape the sordidness, this drab existence of Saturday shopping for another mundane week of life at home with parents too enervated for anything except the experience of TV. What I wanted was energy, opportunity, youth -- and, of course, my sprout and yogurt girl. As I walked down the aisle and saw a woman in curlers and sweat pants smacking her daughter's hand away from a box of chocolate puffs, I thought about my girl. Was she going to be a mother or a just another young co-ed still? Either way, I was certain, she'd be beautiful. In fact, she'd return one day to smile and prove me right.
In the fall, as Clerestory resurrected, the Good Looking Shop-a-Lot became dense with students, pushing around baskets filled with Ramen noodles and Pop-Tarts, six packs and margarita mix. Brown, healthy, shuffling along in flip flops, they all looked like they'd spent the summer lazing at a beach. Rotating stock in the dairy section, I gazed out at them between the plastic gallons of milk. All of these young, gifted, affluent kids were moving toward delectable futures -- toward graduation, at the very least, and then (without doubt) some lucrative job here or in the great big world beyond. Meanwhile, I was standing by, enclosed in a huge refrigerator, surrounded by stacks of margarine and sour cream, my nose and hands (not to mention my brain) growing terribly numb.
One afternoon, while I was lost in strange, surprising compatible
fantasies about higher education and conjugal love, Mr. Unser sneaked up
behind me and shouted "hey!" I dropped a dozen eggs and at least half of
them cracked open on the floor.
"What kind of reaction is that?" he asked, face stretching with an exaggerated frown.
"Mr. Unser, you scared the living...life out of me."
"This doesn't bode well for you."
"What do you mean?"
"Twists and turns," he said, lashing out into the air in front of my face with a one two punch. "You've got to anticipate them. You've got to see them before they happen."
"But your eggs..."
"Exactly," he said, nodding cryptically.
I bent down to pick out shell pieces from the mucous jiggling on the floor.
"By the way, Justice, I'm moving you to second shift until further notice." Mr. Unser must have seen my shoulders droop, for he stuck two fingers in the corners of his lips, creating a ghastly smile that was shorthand for "take it like a man."
Truth be told, the move was far from the end of the world. Over the summer, I'd managed to save a good sum of money, but nothing near what I'd need for a year of tuition, room, board, and books at a private university. The night shift meant more money, and more hours, should I choose. Even better, the move meant less supervision. Still, what about my girl? If I was not where and when she expected me, would she seek me out? Had I made enough of an impression for her to ask about me at the Customer Service desk? If not, I took some consolation in the fact that Clerestory was a small enough town. Surely, I could locate her at the student union, on the campus quad, or perhaps even carousing down Bell Street late one weekend night. At that time, I was optimistic enough then to think that, if only I kept that image burning in my brain, nothing would prove impossible.
For those weeks at the beginning of the semester, it was pleasant working the night shift. Most of the time I was accompanied only by the hum of the freezers and the innocuous tinkle of piped in music. Even at eleven and twelve o'clock, everything was so obscenely bright I had the illusion that life was simple, that all I had to do was remain under this stunning fluorescence and all the dreams of my young life would be realized. It was into this pristine and hopeful world that she suddenly appeared.
"Justice," she said, quite simply, while I was in the middle of squeezing out a mop, preparing to attack a black cherry stain. I'd already picked up the big pieces with a wad of paper towels. The thoughtless person who stomped them had left a dark, bloody trail halfway up the bread aisle.
When I looked up, the handle of the mop collapsed to the floor. Immediately, I reached down for the pole and squeezed it in my hands. For some reason, I felt I'd need it.
I basked in the brilliance of her smile. For the first time, I noticed this slight endearing space between her two front teeth and found myself gazing into it until the silence made me uncomfortable. I longed to be thrilled by the intensity of her attention, but it became evident that hers was no ordinary smile. No, her top and bottom teeth seemed mortared together in a desperate attempt to prove her levity. Finally, she exhaled, and it made perfect sense: the girl was absolutely drunk.
If she had been drinking, perhaps she was not pregnant. Perhaps she had been down on the Bell, celebrating her good fortune with Vampires or Jolly Ranchers or all those colorful drinks the cute girls love to drink. Perhaps she had never had sex, and the shadowy boy who flitted in and out of my mind was indeed a phantom, something she made up to merely stoke my own desire.
She scratched at her hair, producing a scary, electrocuted look. Shifting weight from leg to leg in a curious kind of debate, squeezing a bag of seedless grapes in her hands, she finally blurted out. "You know, I didn't have much of a choice."
Her lips closed over those teeth, and with the gap gone from view, a spell was broken, after which time the words slowly came to me, like water slowly whirlpooling down a plugged up drain. My eyes collapsed to her low riding jeans, the small humps of hip bones.
The jeans wrinkled and darkened at the crotch.
"He was an idiot."
Under those jeans were panties.
"My parents would have freaked -- just gone crazy."
Black silk taut against the mystery of her sex.
The cracked window to passion, and to pain. The narrow opening for life...and for death.
"I'm going to be a lawyer. You see, I've already been accepted at Case."
The security dome eyed us like an absent God.
"I don't know why I'm telling you this."
Her lips puckered, her eyes shrunk to the size of tears. During the awkward pause, Manilow tinkled through the sound system. I didn't know what to say, if anything could be said in a silence spent like that. It was still summer, and not too much of a leap to imagine us in the middle of a romantic comedy, with the promise of everything turning out just so. But she turned, this nameless girl, stitched a course toward an empty checkout aisle, and left the Good Looking Shop-a-Lot for the third and final time, with nothing in her hands, the door sucking shut, while tangled hairs of the mop dripped loudly against the cherry-stained tile.
©2004 by Michael Cocchiarale