by Jessica Barksdale
“Anna,” Sig said over the loudspeaker. “I need you in the deli with a gun.”
As Anna ripped open a box of mustard in the condiment section of aisle 6, she wondered what that sentence might sound like to an ordinary MaxRight shopper. What, someone might think, is going on behind the deli counter? What awful thing is happening next to the salami and Swiss cheese? Could it be that the store manager and the stock girl were interrogating the prosciutto delivery guy with a Glock?
“Gimme the good stuff, you hear?” the Sig might say, the delivery guy gagged, his hands tied behind his back, his face shiny with panic in the glow of a single light bulb. “None of that cheap shit you pass off as meat.”
What the shoppers in produce and meat and dairy couldn’t know was that really, if there was a real gun (not a pricing gun) to be used, Anna might actually use it on Sig.
“Gimme some of the good stuff,” she might say, meaning all of his attention and time and love, most of which was given to his wife. Of course, giving wives love was how the world usually worked, but that didn’t mean Anna liked it.
She looked at the jar of mustard in her gloved hand, the little seeds dark and glistening in their vinegary, yellow bath. She’d never held a real gun in her entire life, not knowing the metal weight of anger or fear, greed or jealousy. And even if she did have a gun or the space to use it, she was sure she wouldn’t know how to fire it. She couldn’t even break up with Sig, their affair now in its second year, Sig nowhere near leaving his wife or life for Anna.
Sighing, Anna stood up, put the mustard in its place by its mustard siblings, pushing the open box into the corner of the aisle. In three months, she’d graduate from the local community college with her AA. Three months after that, she would start her junior year in a small out-of-state college she’d applied to during a lull in the affair, the week Sig took his family to Disneyland. She’d received a scholarship and a slot in the work-study program, but Sig didn’t know about any of her plans. Anna hadn’t told him about the graduation, either, because she didn’t want to hear him backpedal about showing up. Sig with a bouquet of flowers and a big smile after the ceremony was a total fantasy. But really, anyone there for her after the ceremony was probably impossible, too. Her mother would have to take time off for that.
“Anna,” Sig’s voice boomed through the store again. “Deli.”
Anna picked up her gun.
“What?” Anna asked, wishing this summons was just about scanning newly delivered items. But it was more about the fact that the deli supervisor Sue had called in sick, and Sig, the store manager, wanted to use Sue’s office for sex.
Sig looked up, smiled, pushed his dark hair away from his brown eyes. Even after two years, his hand sliding over his thick soft hair, his white teeth smile, the crinkles in the corner of his eyes made her do what her best friend Katie called the “jelly donut.”
“All melty,” Katie said once after spotting a hot guy in the quad at school. “He gives me the soft and jiggly. And loosey. Oh, the jelly donut feeling!”
Then and pretty much up until she met Sig, Anna thought that a lust and a donut was a crazy comparison, but then, well, not so much. Feeling all donuty inside, Anna waited, clutched her gun.
“Come here,” Sig said, but instead of waiting, he stood and walked to her, pressing close as he reached over and closed the office door. He took the gun out of her hand and put it on Sue’s desk.
“How can I ‘come here’ when you’re here already,” she said, half of the sentence mumbled against his shoulder. He smelled like oranges, black ink, and baby lotion, the gloppy pink kind his wife probably picked out on aisle 3. The baby’s name was Hadley, a little girl born almost a year ago.
On bad nights, Anna wondered about the horrible significance of Sig and his wife having a baby exactly in the middle of his and Anna’s affair. Then she remembered there wasn’t any significance but something actual and real, like, for one, he was married. Married people had sex and babies.
Anna pulled away from him, but it was too late. He wrapped his arms around her, his palms making imprints on her back, one sliding down her spine, along the stiffness of her red MaxRight shirt to the waist of her black MaxRight pants.
“Don’t be shy,” he said, dipping his mouth to her neck, pressing his smooth lips on the arch of muscle from her behind her ear to collar bone. “And don’t be mad.”
But she was mad.
“Why didn’t you come by last night? You said you would,” she asked, knowing the answer because it was going to be a version of the one he always gave. “My mom was at work all night.”
“Matthew had a thing at school. Big pre-school parents’ night. Whatever,” Sig said, his voice low and soft, his lips on her earlobe. “But let’s not talk, okay?”
Anna felt him tugging at her shirt, her hand uncurled a little, her body resisted and then relaxed. Sig made her feel the way “Ahhh” felt in her throat, a feeling dark and round and red and hot, nothing like anything she’d felt before she’d met him. The kisses she’d had up to Sig’s were nothing. The boys and their wiry, skinny, bodies and urgent body parts, nothing to this, Sig moving her toward the desk, opening her shirt one two three. His hands were on her breasts, and just like that, she gave up, as always. Her hands at his belt, zipper, pants, underwear, body. Her legs spread, his body pushing at and then inside her.
Five minutes later, it had already been over for a minute. Sig was slicking back his hair, his shirt tucked back into his pants, the used condom wrapped up in a deli meat delivery invoice and buried in poor Sue’s trash can.
Blinking into the dark yellow light of the windowless office, her heart rose and then sank and then hit the dirty concrete floor with a splat.
“Are you going to come by tonight?” she asked, trying to fill her voice with air.
“Babe.” Sig took one last long look at himself in the mirror, angling his face this way, and then that, feeling his chin, his jaw, his right cheek, his left. Anna could imagine her hand again on his face, the crackle of hours-old beard. “No can do. Weekly family dinner. You know how Deena is about that.”
Anna smoothed her shirt, her apron, picked up the gun. “Okay.”
“Gotta get out there on the floor.” He tugged one last time on his collar, pulling at the front as if it could cover his large Adam’s apple, which it never would. “Wait a while before you walk out of here.”
Sig was staring at her forehead as he moved close to her this time, blinking, distracted, his hands on her shoulders, a kiss over her left eye, and then he opened the door and left, leaving it cracked open.
Anna sat down on the desk chair and breathed in pickle juice and olive oil. She and Sig hadn’t had sex for a couple of weeks, and even though he’d lasted only minutes, she ached. She would throb down there for her entire shift.
Anna would count for ten seconds. Maybe twenty. She stared at Sue’s calendar, the seconds as long as the days.
Two years ago, Anna walked into MaxRight with her filled out application, two references, and a jangle of stomach nerves. Sig sat in his office that overlooked the floor, his computer screen bright behind him. Because she was nervous, she stared at his hands, and she’d liked them, big and strong with freckled fingers and light brown hair on the knuckles, his right ring finger clearly marked, warning label apparent.
“You work at CVS?”
“All through high school,” Anna had said. “I need more hours though.”
What she didn’t tell him was that she needed the hours because her mother cut her off, just like that.
“You’re 18. I’ve carried you all your life. Now it’s time to pay rent,” Nancy had said as she sat at the table drinking a Coke Zero. “Figure it out.”
So that afternoon, Anna walked up the street from CVS into MaxSmart, figuring hopefully done.
“Hours we got,” Sig told her, riffling through her application, all two pages of it. “If all this info checks out, you can start on Monday.”
“Really?” Anna said, her chest filling with air, light and full of hope. If he was telling her the truth, she could live at home, pay her bills, and go to college.
“Damn straight,” Sig said, flashing her that smile, the smile, the one that still made her do the jelly donut. Now she knows that he looked at her one, two, three seconds too long, his gaze lingering on the space between her throat and her breasts. Later he would tell her that was the second he knew they’d be together. He’d seen the pulse in her neck, and he knew, Sig said, that it wasn’t nerves about the job that made her pulse so much.
“You wanted me,” he’d said. “That was obvious.”
Anna knew she was wrong and bad for sleeping with Sig, for fucking him on desks and in the store aisles late at night, clutching onto the chip rack as he pounded her from behind. Those nights he dropped by when he said he was going to the drugstore, to a friend’s for a card game, to his mother’s? Anna was wrong for that, too, but from that day in his office, his fingers, his smile, his hair, his way of moving toward her, all made no a big fat yes.
After her shift—Sig leaving early because of some childcare crisis–Anna bought a carne asada burrito from Gorditas and got on the bus at the corner, arriving home just in time to see her mother’s boyfriend Stevie race by. Race was a real word for Stevie because he had a sort of race car kind of car—red, shiny, big engine that sounded like a jet. Also, he used to live in some southern town like Chattanooga or Nashville or Asheville or something and worked the pit for a NASCAR driver, Anna wasn’t sure which one because she didn’t know the names of any NASCAR drivers except that girl one, Danica something. In general, she didn’t know much about Stevie. Over ten years younger than Anna’s mom, Stevie was thirty-two and actually wore wife beater t-shirts. His left nostril was pierced, as was, her mother said, his right nipple.
He wore a hat so low on his forehead, Anna wondered how he could even see the world, but there he went, flying down Laurel Avenue like a yahoo redneck asshole, though he was really only one of those.
Anna stared at the space he’d left in the air, a huge hulking hole. Sometimes, she wished her mother would get in the passenger’s seat next to Stevie and they’d both drive off and vanish into the space in front of them, a mysterious, supernatural event on Laurel Drive. Anna would live in the house all by herself, or sell it, and use the proceeds to live while she finished school and later set herself up somewhere nice. She’d live alone. She would never let Sig know where she was.
Her heart beat into this fantasy, but just like that, two kids roared by on motorcycles, and the hole was just the street, as usual.
Her mother was sitting at the dining room table, her laptop open to an eBay screen. In the afternoons right after she woke up and before she went to her shift at labor and delivery at Kaiser, Nancy surfed the buying possibilities. Mostly, she bought and sold old dolls, the kind with eyes that opened and shut when you laid them down and sat them up. Anna was slapped a few times for holding dolls upside down to test their black, beady eyes or see what was under the voluminous lace petticoats, which sadly was always just a smooth pate of nothing. She also liked to shake them to see their ceramic legs move at the knee joints, but, she learned with a sting, these joints weren’t meant for that much bending.
Dolls, Anna learned early, were not for playing.
“How was work?” Nancy said as she clicked with her long nails on the computer keyboard. “Any good discounts today?”
Before Anna could answer, Nancy looked up, her eyes slits. “You smell like meat. Bacon or something.”
“I work at a grocery store, Mother,” Anna said.
“Don’t call me that.” Nancy went back to her screen.
In the kitchen, Anna put down her bags, slid her burrito on a plate, and then poured herself a glass of orange juice. When she was little and her mother was outside chatting with neighbors on the sidewalk or at work, she would go into the doll room and lie down on the carpet, staring upward at the bottoms of a hundred tiny black doll shoes. The dolls had always had their own room, no matter where she and her mother lived. In one shitty apartment before her mother finished nursing school, the dolls had the only bedroom, Anna and her mother sharing the fold out couch. Some days, Anna would open the door just for the shock of seeing all their wide open eyes. Once they’d moved away from that apartment, her mother had always a bedroom, but Anna had slept on the couch in a living room or den until Nancy had finally saved up enough to buy this house five years ago.
When and if she ever had children, Anna hoped she had boys.
That night Sig texted her twelve times, the last one while she was in bed, the lights out, nothing illuminating the room but the glow of her cell phone.
where are u my pretty?
Her hands shook as she stared at her screen, but a dull drum pulse deep in her body kept her from answering. No, the drums said. No.
She closed her phone and her eyes, and thought of sleep.
After school, Anna went to work, slipping into the staff room, hanging up her sweater in her locker. Her skin tingled for Sig, but she shivered, too, wishing he would go away forever and leave her alone. He’d texted her a few more times last night, and she hadn’t answered one of them. But why? Every time she’d tried to pull away, she’d resisted only so long before going right back into his embrace by the bread or kisses in the stock room, both of the standing on the sticky floor. What was she trying to prove? She wasn’t stupid. She knew there was no way he was going to dump his family for her, and she thought of something her mother said when they watched television together, shows where the female character caved in to the male character and then wondered why he eventually left her.
“Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” Nancy would say with a laugh. “Idiot.”
Anna had never told her friend Katie about Sig, but Katie went on and on about sexual harassment at her work at the swim center downtown.
“The head lifeguard is always giving me shit about my suit,” Katie said. “Like saying it’s too thin. Or I ‘must be cold’ and all that crap about my nipples showing. I should tell the center director.”
MaxRight had a regional manager, Ted, who showed up once a week and went over secret sales stuff or whatever with Sig in his office, but Sig was the boss of all the bosses at the store, Anna the lowest of the low in the stock room and aisles. She’d have to tell her direct manager LaTanya and she’d have to tell Jim, Sig’s second in command.
Jim would have to confront Sig, and that was never going to happen, Jim tall but short inside.
Anna left the staff room and found her duty list on the board, going out to aisle seven with boxes of toilet paper, all of which needed to be shelved. She smiled at every customer and said, “Hello. Can I help you find something?” just in case the shopper was a “secret shopper,” one of those spies the MaxRight assholes sent to all the stores to catch you in non-hellos and basic every day rudeness. So far, no one had caught Anna, but she suspected she was only an averted gaze away from trouble.
She nodded at two co-workers, Rodney and James, and then turned the corner to find Sig at the end of the aisle, talking with a new hire, a girl just out of high school, who had a name like Misty or Amber.
Neither of them turned to look at Anna and she clunked toward them with the dolly full of toilet paper, one box sliding slightly as she stopped.
There was really nothing to see in the conversation, nothing that anyone other than Anna would have noticed: a manager talking earnestly to an employee, the employee nodding, taking mental notes, struck dumb and still in the awesomeness of her new job.
But wait, Anna thought. There. Sig’s hand reached out, caught Misty Amber’s elbow, a one, two beat of squeeze. In the way the girl leaned in, leaned back, smiled and then stood still reminded Anna of her past self, the just-graduated high school girl who’d wanted to please.
Sig’s body moved as it had moved so many times in front of Anna, a right step, a left, and almost perfect fit against the girl who blinked, flushed, stared.
Anna watched, waited for one of them to turn and see her, but neither did, the store a dream around them. They were in a bubble or surrounded by a force field, something Anna couldn’t walk through.
She felt her body awash in heat and fire, her fingers curled tight around the dolly handle. Two years ago, he’d approached her in the exact same way, right there, just like this, in the aisles. Maybe there had been another woman standing where Anna was right now, holding the toilet paper, watching, seeing finally.
Back then, Sig had told Anna how lucky she was that he’d given her this great job. Sig promised her a big promotion to cashiering. He smiled, he’d simmered, he’d shone, he’d held her arm, then her shoulder four or five beats past appropriate. And she’d let him and then let him do more. She still let him. Letting him was the one thing Anna had.
As she sat on the hard seat, Anna held herself tight, cold in the big empty bus, her bag pressed against her side. She’d forgotten to retrieve her sweater from the locker room, remembering it only as she felt the cool air let in by the rattling open windows. She looked out the window at the unfamiliar streets, knowing that she had to pay attention or she might miss the stop. On other angry days, she’d charted out this route before, knowing where to catch it and where to get off, at least as she stared at the map online.
She counted the stops from the corner of Mountain and Moraga. And now, here was the church, the street, the corner, and she pulled the cord, and the bus driver slowed and stopped, his gaze on her as she walked down the back steps off the bus and out onto the afternoon sidewalk.
Her bag beat hard against her upper thigh as she walked. The houses got nicer as she headed up the hill, the sidewalks big and broad, perfect for bikes and strollers, spacious enough for whole families out for an evening walk after dinner. Mother, Father, toddler, baby rumbling along, already asleep. Anna looked at the front porches, seeing chairs and tables, imagining neighbors calling out to passersby, “Hello there! How are you all today?”
In this part of town, there were no cars parked on lawns or graffiti sprayed in dark flurries on retaining walls or street signs. There were no overflowing trashcans or homeless people pushing carts. Everything looked as though people bought their houses when they were young, newlyweds, and stayed there until they came out feet first. Everyone for blocks must know each other. They remembered the names of each others’ children and then grandchildren and even dogs. They spent time together on the fourth of July and on Halloween, all of them walking the neighborhoods together in big, happy groups. Sometimes on summer nights, they met in backyards in the warm yellow glow of outside lighting and drank beer and ate barbeque. They carpooled to schools and Friday night football games.
Anna walked on, turned the corner, staring at the yards as she passed. All of them were tended, perfect with lawns and large, bunchy groupings of flowers and plants, none of which Anna could name. She could name none of this really, her life lived on different streets, none of which had yards like these.
“Let it die,” her mother said when Anna asked about watering the small tufts of grass and flowers in the yard on Laurel Drive. “I’m not gonna to pay to keep it green.”
When Anna reached the next street corner, she stopped and looked to her left, seeing the house she’d come here for, bronze numbers on the mailbox and by the front door. The lawn was green, the plants bursting with red, yellow, and purple blooms. A tree puffed with white blossoms spread its delicate limbs over the lawn. Anna blinked against the sunlight, hearing the birds in the big leafy trees that lined the street, the laughter of children in backyards, the distant whine of cars from a faraway freeway.
Every night, this was where Sig came home to. He pulled his Dodge Durango into the driveway and stepped out, walking the path to the house. He opened the big red door and called out to his wife Deena and kids. Inside, they ate a nutritious family dinner together, and then they took an evening stroll on the sidewalk and talked with the neighbors as the sun set behind San Francisco. Back at home, they watched television and then snuggled down for sleep.
Except, of course, Sig was texting her all night, maybe during dinner and the walk and television and sleep. Anna looked up the street and thought about all the other people in the other houses, the way their lives looked from here and then how they felt inside, deep down, all the way to the bottom of the loneliness that kept them texting people they shouldn’t be texting. These people lay in beds next to a wife or husband and dreamed of someone else. What was the difference between Laurel Drive and this street? Maybe just the noise of Stevie’s car.
For a second, she felt like one of the dolls on her mother’s shelves, looking down at the girl on the floor who looked right back. And then she was her younger self looking up at what she couldn’t have. Both views made perfect sense.
She clutched her bag, pressing the hard object inside it against her body. She was so tired of wanting and so tired of not having. Even if what was inside these houses wasn’t perfect, she wanted it somehow, needed to have a piece of it, even if that piece was a cheating, lying bastard, who slicked back his hair and smiled as he pulled her close. Even if Sig would always be Sig, growing older, moving through the parade of young girls he hired, one after the other, Anna not even one of the first, Misty Amber not the last.
Anna moved toward the mailbox, reading the number 6584. A place, a spot, something to name. Sig’s children would know their street number and their house. They would probably never know their father completely—unaware of his desires and needs–but they could detail his outline, know his shape, remember the way he’d been there, even if they later learned it was only in part.
No matter what college she went to or what job she later got or where she lived, Anna would never know any of these things about her father, a man who’d slipped away long before she was born, not even leaving behind memory. Anna would never know the mother who she’d lived with for twenty years because her mother kept an army of small fake people between them, loving what was static and lifeless over what needed care.
Anna stood at the top of Sig’s walkway, looking at the shiny front door, a dried floral wreath hung in the middle. On the porch by the door, there were tiny red sneakers and white rain boots, a wooden bench, a dog bowl. Inside the house, Anna could see someone moving around in what might be the dining room.
Sig’s wife. Deena. Anna had sometimes hated her or, usually, just wished her away, she the one who’d kept Sig from coming over at night. But now, seeing Deena’s careful yard and tidy house, Anna knew that they were both lost but in different stories.
She opened her bag and gripped the handle, gripping hard, knowing this was something she could use, something that he would understand.
The person in the house stilled and moved toward the window, turning from black to gray to blond and blue into Deena, the baby Hadley in her arms just like a doll that Anna might have picked up, shaken, its porcelain joints cracking. How easy it would have been to pick up that fragile body and throw it down. And then another and another, all her mother’s hard work in a pile, petticoats and dresses, broken feet and vacant eyes.
All those years and Anna never smashed one.
The front door opened, and Deena stepped out onto the porch, pushing aside the sneakers with a bare foot.
“Hello?” she called out. The baby turned, looked at Anna, her eyes wide and blue and staring.
Anna swallowed, stepped forward, her hand on her bag. She pulled out the pricing gun, opened the mailbox, and slipped it in. The mailbox closed with a click. The price of everything was too much. She didn’t need a gun to understand that.
“What are you doing?” Deena asked. “What did you put in there?”
Anna exhaled, put a hand on the mailbox. “Something I forgot to leave at work.”
Deena jiggled the baby, starred to walk forward, and Anna turned, walked away, breaking into a run as she headed back to the bus stop. She took in air, feeling her tears on her face without really knowing she was crying. Down the street, she saw the bus approach and she ran faster. She would have to get a new job for six months, but when she left for college, she would leave for good. She would never come back. She would start the life she wanted to have, find the job, the street, the house, the people she would live with for the rest of her life, trying to remember those sneakers near Sig’s doorstep, so tiny, so hopeful.
Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. Her latest, How to Bake a Man, will be published in October by Ghostwoods Books. She is a professor of English at Diablo Valley College and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension.