By: Rachel Pollon
I scanned the generic bottle of acetaminophen, the supersize bag of adult diapers, the sleeve of plastic barrettes, and the travel-sized tube of hair gel. Then, looking up to make eye contact, I announced the total to the woman standing in front of me fishing through her handbag. Her cellphone was cradled between her left ear and hunched shoulder. She mouthed “Sorry” to me, then said into the phone, “Yes, I got them. Just keep him in the bath.”
Behind her a man coughed and asked if any other registers could be opened. I told him we were short a person this morning, that someone had called in sick. I pointed to the manager’s kiosk. “You can talk to him.” The man and another woman in line craned their heads to look, but the manager wasn’t at the kiosk, or in the vicinity, so they decided to stay put and take their chances with me.
I get the feeling people think I’m judging them for what they buy. I’m not. I’m noticing, sure, but not judging. I’m conjuring stories using the evidence supplied to me. It makes my day more interesting, and, honestly, it’s just in my nature.
The woman at my register found her wallet and handed over a credit card. I asked if she wanted a bag. She nodded awkwardly, her phone still attached to her shoulder. I could have told her it was ten cents extra, but because of the adult diapers for, I assumed, the person in the bath, and the acetaminophen, I imagined, for her, I kept it to myself and didn’t charge her. I have yet to hear that management is counting the plastic bags and figuring out their loss-gain averages. Fuck the management and fuck plastic bags. We’re all going to die strangled by them regardless of whether or not we charge ten cents.
I secured the woman’s acquisitions in the contraband bag and handed them to her. She said into the phone, “Unless I hit traffic, I’ll see you in twenty minutes. Sing to him, he likes it,” then smiled at me apologetically and mouthed, “Thank you.”
It occurred to me that she could have been speaking to a nanny with a toddler in a bath and had accidentally bought adult diapers, but it wasn’t my place to intervene. I was merely the gatekeeper.
The woman moved off and the man behind her took his place in front of me, slapping shoelaces, Triscuits, anti-fungal foot cream, and a sympathy card onto the counter. I was definitely going to charge him for a bag. Maybe I’d keep the dime. Drill a hole into it and wear it dangling from a chain, a reminder of my power.
I picked up the anti-fungal cream and said, “Delicious on a cracker.”
He smiled and said, “You must see some things.”
I pretended like I wasn’t glad for the camaraderie. He was just going to leave—why get invested?
The next customer had a boring, straightlaced look. Probably on her way to a midlevel job at a corporation that shits on the everyman for fun and profit. Possibly in Human Resources, wondering why she never applied for the positions she was trying to fill, watching the world go by while she sat at her desk, giving others opportunities she could have taken herself. She slid an unnecessarily expensive bottle of water in front of me. She must’ve been very thirsty to stop in only for that. Maybe she was casing the joint, plotting an illicit joyride to counter her anesthetized existence. I almost held up my hands in mock terror.
Just as I was about to scan the water, she stopped me and said she wanted to buy some scratch tickets. “Five dollars’ worth.”
Maybe the jolt from the almost impossible happening was what she was after.
“You must be a gambler,” I said. “Those are some unlikely odds.” I had some experience in this arena.
“We take our fun where we can get it,” she said.
I wanted more for her.
“Good luck,” I said. I almost slipped her an extra one. But if she hadn’t returned it upon realizing, I would’ve been disappointed by her dishonesty. Then again, maybe if she’d won, she’d have come back and shared her spoils with me. It was all too complicated and weighted. I couldn’t hold her responsible for the moral fabric of the human race. I was glad I suppressed the urge.
She didn’t want a plastic bag. She smiled and read my name badge. “Have a nice day, Ginger.” And even though she probably learned to do that in Human Resources school, it felt sincere.
Gary, the shift manager, came over to my register and told me he found someone to fill in for Amelia, the one who called in sick. “Carlos will be in in forty-five minutes.”
I was ambiguous about this development. I needed help—I couldn’t ring up the entire store myself—but the last time I saw Carlos, I’d broken off with him.
Carlos and I had been engaged in what you could call a confusing friendship. Both of us were married, so it was easy to feel like it wasn’t becoming what it was until it did. I wanted him to arrive in forty-five minutes. I needed backup, someone to field some of the burden. Which is what, I suppose, Carlos did for me in our relationship: offered support, lit things up, introduced ease. He was my human resource. I know, it seems too perfect that I’d bring it back around to that, but sometimes life works that way.
I’m not saying anything original when I tell you that it began innocently enough. And that I thought I was being nice to him, not the other way around. He was in a tough place, had just lost a steady, well-paying job, and this was one of three he was handling to keep his family afloat. He had a wife, a three-year-old son, and a newborn daughter named Felicity. I felt like that name said a lot about Carlos. His outlook. At first I was mostly just sympathetic to his situation. I’d listen. It’s not that his problems were more difficult than mine, but somehow hearing about his struggles offered me a reprieve. Empathy is a lifesaver that way. Over time we got to know each other better, and I’d offer to finish up his inventory stocking or count his register if he needed to leave early to get to his next job—whatever little things I could do to help.
When Carlos first found out that my husband and I were apart, he encouraged me to try to understand why Keith did what he did and to make sense of what happened so I’d make the right decision, so I wouldn’t have regrets. He reminded me that I married Keith for a reason and that that reason still lurked, however deep down inside.
Keith had been away for over a year, and he’d be back home in six months with time served, if he could keep up his good behavior. Good behavior was hard for him. It was as if he knew his life wouldn’t amount to anything grand and had to make whatever he could exciting, dangerous. Rules were there to be broken. Right and wrong were fun and games as far as he was concerned.
Early in our relationship I was completely under Keith’s spell. I was young, and he was a man who’d experienced life in ways that were mysterious and foreign to me. He got by doing odd jobs. He was a doorman at a bar—that’s where I met him—a handyman, made deliveries for a pharmacy, and cleaned pools. Occasionally I would go with him on his jobs. He’d either have me wait in his truck or, if he knew no one was home, I would join him. On pool jobs, he’d tell me to enjoy myself on a lounge chair, as if it was his to offer, while he scooped leaves and pine needles from the water’s surface.
One particularly hot day, after the initial cleaning but before putting in the chemicals, Keith told me to get in. I thought he was playing, but then he said to me in a most dead serious tone, “Go on. I want to see you in this pool.” It felt like we might never have this opportunity again, so I did it. I lifted up my dress so it wouldn’t get wet, hugged it against my chest, and stepped down onto the stair that allowed the water to envelop and kiss my upper thighs. We both liked it. Keith walked over to an alcove in the yard, opened up the mini refrigerator, and pulled out a bottle of rosé wine. He twisted off the cap and brought it to me.
“I don’t think we should,” I said.
“It’s fine. They won’t miss it. You deserve this,” he told me.
I stood on the step, twisting myself subtly to and fro, sipping from the bottle. There was only a hint of sweetness. It tasted refined.
Keith watched me from across the pool.
“Rosé is your drink,” he said. “Same as your hair color.”
I put the bottle up to my head. If my friends were there, we would have taken a picture. Keith didn’t do that. Evidence.
Our relationship continued like this—Keith setting the tone, me along for the ride—until his troubles inevitably caught up with him. You can’t skim off the top of life forever, taking what isn’t yours, without tripping up eventually and paying the price.
On the days we worked the same shifts, Carlos and I took our lunch breaks together. With the fifteen or so minutes left after eating, we’d take a walk around the block to get away from the fluorescent lights and the constant loop of popular hits from days gone by piped in over the sound system.
On those walks we existed in the present. We’d talk about what we wanted for our lives. We talked about our families, of course. I think that helped us believe our relationship was virtuous. It was as though I gave Carlos a higher purpose in his new, less than ideal, employment situation. His words and teachings about forgiveness and loyalty were aimed at keeping my heart open to my marriage, but instead they opened my heart to Carlos. I don’t think that was his intention, but my need for love tapped into his inclination to give it.
Carlos told me about a sermon he’d heard. The priest talked about kindness, how kindness keeps you on the playing field. He said if you aren’t kind, you could find yourself untethered and alone, detached from society entirely. It was that sort of thinking that brought us together. A little kindness never hurt anyone, Carlos had said. I wasn’t sure if he was still quoting the priest or winging it.
On one walk, when we were making room for other people passing by, Carlos put his hand on my upper back near my neck. It was the first time I realized what was happening. I looked up at him reflexively and placed my hand on his lower back, almost for balance. We let go and moved on, but when we rounded the corner to the next street, the quiet block on our route, Carlos stopped, turned to face me, and said, “I’m sorry I touched you.”
“It’s all right,” I told him. “Things happen.”
“I’ve wanted to for so long,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” And with that, he pulled me close. “I just want to hold you,” he said. He felt solid and vast, like a treasure chest buried at the bottom of the sea.
When we unfolded from each other, Carlos took my hand for the first time. Slipped his smooth, warm palm against mine, like a puzzle piece pressing into place. We held on like this until we reached the corner where people and traffic returned. Then we let go and walked the rest of the way, our hands in our pockets, side by side.
“Cleanup on aisle lines-have-been-crossed,” I thought about announcing over the store intercom when we were back inside. But, of course, I didn’t. I hung my jacket up in the employee locker room and went back out on the floor to begin the second half of my shift.
Gary opened one of the registers to help while we waited for Carlos. I was ringing up a customer who was causing a line to build because she couldn’t decide which scent of deodorant she wanted, when Carlos arrived. I tracked him as he entered through the automatic doors. He’d gotten a haircut. It was shorter than I’d ever seen him wear it. An elderly man on an electric scooter exiting at the same time almost drove into him. Carlos managed a quick spin out of the way, threw his hands up, and laughed, then looked at me from across the room and shrugged. Seeing him made me want to cry. The deodorant woman asked me my opinion, and though I was now firmly thinking about how I would miss spending time with Carlos, I indulged her. She put the Geranium Harvest up to my nose. Then the Raspberry Fields. They smelled artificial, like an off-brand lollipop. It was a no-win situation.
“What sign are you?” I asked.
“Taurus,” she said.
Having no real knowledge of astrology but thinking the idea of a new bounty ahead sounded nice, I said, “Get the Geranium Harvest.”
The rest of the morning passed quickly after I took over the ten-items-or-fewer register—my favorite. Though most shoppers tended to come in for fewer than ten items anyway, the people who chose this line moved with more purpose. I forgot myself in the customers’ needs. It was a relief, a sort of at-work paid vacation from myself. By the time the midday shift arrived for our lunch break, I’d surrendered. I felt light.
Carlos came into the break room seven minutes after I did.
“You want me to go somewhere else?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” I said. I moved my lunch bag to the side to make room.
“We’ll figure this out,” he said. “Our big pictures will lead the way.”
I considered what my big picture was. It was a blank canvas. I knew nothing.
We decided to share our bags of chips with each other, pouring them out on a napkin to combine and eat at will.
“Are you working this weekend?” I asked.
“I’m trying to pick up longer shifts at the restaurant, so hopefully not,” he said.
“Your hair looks good,” I said. I wanted to touch it.
“Thanks,” he said. “It was time.”
We ate in silence for a few moments, then Carlos said, “That corn chip looks like a shard of glass.”
I picked the shard up, inspected it, used it to draw an X over his heart, then put it in my mouth.
“Ow,” Carlos said, then popped open his Sunkist and drank.
On a normal day, we’d have headed off on our walk. But it wasn’t a normal day. I told him I needed to run an errand. He knew I was lying, but we were both okay with it.
Outside, the cold air hit my lungs like it was trying to erase me. I exhaled with the force of a move I learned in the self-defense class Keith insisted I take when he went away.
I noticed a woman in the parking lot walking toward me, waving. I wasn’t sure the wave was for me, but as she got closer, I realized she was Carlos’s wife, Estée. I didn’t recognize her at first without her children, but once she got close enough, her vivacious and unburdened self, traits I chalked up to her faith, shone through. It’s funny that they call faith believing, when really it seems to be a sort of against-all-odds-and-evidence deciding. A leap of decision.
“How are you?” she said, giving my arm a little squeeze.
“I’m good,” I said. “About to take a walk to break up the day.”
Estée explained that Carlos had forgotten his hat at home and would need it for his night job valeting cars.
What a nice wife, I thought. I wasn’t sure I would have taken my husband his hat. I might have let him suffer. Or assumed he’d acquire one somehow. Beg, borrow, or steal.
“Did Carlos tell you about the wedding we went to yesterday?” she asked.
“He didn’t,” I said.
“Oh, it was gorgeous. This church—floor-to-ceiling stained glass. And the ceremony was so heartfelt. I told Carlos we should renew our vows.”
A small part of me wondered if a small part of her was telling me this for a reason she didn’t want to think about.
“That’s a nice idea,” I said.
The concept upset me on a couple of levels. The obvious one, Carlos wasn’t mine to commit to. And also, I wasn’t sure if, given the opportunity, I would renew my vows with Keith.
“I told him we could have the kids there, you know? I think it would be really special.”
She then seemed to remember my situation.
“I’m a romantic,” she said like it was something to be ashamed of. I never understood why people apologized for their greatest desires, pretended they didn’t want what they did. As if that would protect them from disappointment.
“Me too,” I said.
She moved next to me on the sidewalk to get out of the way of traffic.
“I’ve kept you long enough,” she apologized. “Go.”
“He’s inside,” I said. “Last I saw, in the break room.”
“You’re an angel,” she said when we parted, and I wondered if she meant the kind that hovered in the sky, gazing down at us, looking for worthy targets, excuses to shoot their bows and arrows. Or something else entirely.
I headed off on my walk. I pushed out the cold air and breathed in a prayer I’d received in a fortune cookie once. “Don’t give up, look up.”
But instead I looked down and noticed on the sidewalk various pieces of trash. Collecting in the corners against buildings, hugging the sewers. You rarely catch people in the act of littering, yet here it all was. What if they were lost items, not discarded? A beige plastic bag flapped in the steadying wind, half wrapped around the leg of a bus stop bench. I pulled it loose and inspected it. It was blank. I took it with me and continued on, filling it with everything I could along the way.
Rachel Pollon is a native Los Angeleno. Her writing has been published in The Coachella Review, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and The Weeklings. Her work was included in The Beautiful Anthology and Teen Girls’ Comedic Monologues That Are Actually Funny. Her website is SeismicDrift.com.