by Elliott Gish
The customer has hair on his knuckles. That is the first thing I notice when I look up and see him standing in front of the service desk, his hands resting gently on its edge. The hair is black and thick, growing in wild tufts like those on the tails of wild pigs.
“Excuse me, miss. If I might have a moment of your time.”
His overcoat is black as well, scabby with dandruff at the shoulders and missing two buttons. The long hair sprouting in patches from his head is grey, although the odd strand still has the faintest blush of colour. His smile is wide, and he has spinach caught between two of his bottom teeth. On his face is an expression I have seen many times before, one that fill me with annoyance and dread in equal measure. It is the expression of a man who enjoys talking to women, whether they like it or not.
I smile the smile that I reserve specifically for work, the one with all my teeth, and ask what I can do for him.
“What indeed, miss, what indeed! It so happens that I have spent the last few hours in your Home Goods section. Specifically, the aisle directly opposite Décor. Do you recall what items occupy those particular shelves?”
I’m afraid I don’t, I tell him, keeping my eyes on his face instead of his hands. This is harder than it ought to be. I always find myself fixated on the personal grotesqueries of the people who come to the desk for help: misshapen noses, neck folds, cheeks spattered with bursting purple acne. A few months ago, I realized halfway through a return that the right of a customer’s body was slightly bigger than her left, her entire starboard side swollen like rising dough. The discovery made it difficult to concentrate. I had to ask her three times if she wanted her refund in cash or store credit.
“You really ought to familiarize yourself with the layout of your workplace. It is always wise to know precisely where things are in any location. Whenever I enter a new space, I take great pains to acquaint myself with every inch of it, floor to ceiling. I take doors and windows especially into account, for one never knows when a swift and sudden exit might be necessary. If there was a bomb threat, for example, or if one were to encounter an old flame with a bitter heart. That aisle, as it happens, is home to kitchen appliances: blenders and coffee makers, microwaves and electric mixers. So many machines, snug in their boxes like birds in their nests, together yet so far apart! They call to my mind those people who sit next to one another in silence on the bus, or in planes, or trains, or any number of automobiles. Legs and shoulders pressing together, intimate as lovers, and yet they never exchange a word. Shameful, don’t you agree?”
I certainly do, I tell him. This is a lie. I never speak to strangers on the bus or on planes. Talking to people I don’t know is what pays my rent. I do it for free only if no other option presents itself.
“In my experience, it is young people who are the worst for it. I once sat next to a woman on a train who was your age—or at least, I presume she was. I will not tell you exactly what that age is, so as not to give offense. Perhaps you are older and exceedingly well-preserved, or younger and unusually haggard. This young lady, then, who may or may not have been as old as you may or may not be, was one of those young people who would not make conversation with strangers. Instead she read books and newspapers and magazines and the labels on cans of condensed soup—anything to keep her eyes fixed on lines of print rather than another person. I tried for several hours to speak to her while we were trapped together on that train, using all the wit at my disposal. I told her my name and asked for hers. I offered my opinions on various current events. I recited poetry—from memory, mind you!—and monologues from plays. I told her blue jokes I’d learned in the more disreputable sort of men’s washrooms. I sang her lullabies in seven languages, two of which were dead. All for nothing. She simply would not meet my gaze, even when I stood directly in front of her and shouted in her ear. Her rudeness struck me to the core, and strikes me there to this day, although many years have since passed, and my core is not what it used to be.”
It’s most of my job, these days, listening to men like this, even though I went to the right schools and got the right degree and made all the choices that were supposed to keep me out of retail forever. My mother still hums with displeasure when I talk about work, murmuring about the expense of university, the waste of it all, as though I am willfully frittering away my time rather than having it taken from me by force. No one, she has told me more than once, should still be wearing a nametag when they are this close to thirty.
Overhead, a song on the store playlist segues into another. My mind follows the familiar lyrics like a bouncing ball.
“You seem annoyed, my dear. No, no, don’t protest! I can tell by the crook of your mouth, that little wrinkle between your brows. Reading facial expressions is a skill I have had many long years to hone. I can tell what a person is feeling almost before they know themselves. Perhaps you misunderstand me. I do not mean to disparage the act of reading—only the character of the reader. It is a fine thing, reading, though I confess I miss the days before the invention of the alphabet. Perhaps you don’t recall those times, being young (or not). Words existed only on the tongue then, and not in the eye. There were no flirtatious q’s, no sinuous s’s, no decadent rolling o’s. No one had yet begun to think that they could snare sounds like rabbits with a few strokes of a pen, or a quill, or a stylus made of river-reed.”
He lifts his hands off the desk for a moment as if to say he washes them of the whole affair. The tufts of hair on his knuckles wave slightly with the movement. I imagine him falling down a flight of stairs, striking that tremulous head on every step until it is a bloody mess of pulp. Pulling a comment card from beneath the desk, I ask him if he would like to fill it out and place it in the Feedback Box at the exit. This type of customer usually jumps at the chance to express their discontent in such an exciting new avenue, but he frowns and shakes his head.
“No, I most certainly would not. It is yourself to whom I wish to speak, not that little scrap of paper, and I do not appreciate being rushed out the door. Nearly every bit of mischief currently troubling the world is a direct result of someone rushing or being rushed. Mind, I say nearly. There are still some bits of mischief not accounted for. Termites, for example, or the odour at the bottoms of certain wells. I was, as I said, perusing your kitchen appliances, occasionally taking note of some particularly ingenious gadget or gewgaw, when I came upon an object that was quite misplaced—not just an item from another aisle, abandoned by some careless shopper, but put in the wrong box altogether. I noticed this because from time to time I like to take things out of their packaging to examine them. This is easy with things like kitchen appliances, accomplished with the lifting of a cardboard flap. It becomes trickier when it comes to, say, cuts of meat, or goose down comforters, or mice. I was once ordered out of a supermarket merely because I wished to look inside a carton of eggs—inside the eggs themselves, beneath the shell. It was only one carton, and I’d only gotten through three of them when they called in security to march me out. I am still banned from that establishment and may be forever. But it was worth it to break through that brittle hull and see the golden yolk nestled in the clear viscosity of the white, safe as a bird, lonely as a cloud.”
My lips are beginning to sting from being so unnaturally contorted for so long. I don’t know how much longer I can keep this smile in place, but the customer is looking at me with such intent and focus that I don’t feel comfortable relaxing my face. It would be an admittance of weakness, a gap in my armour. I wish I had an excuse to cut this short, hurry him along in favour of the next customer, but there is no line forming conveniently behind him.
In fact, the entire store seems unusually still.
“In this case, the object I chose to examine was a toaster. A red one, of a certain mark and make. I’m sure you know the kind I mean. It was the colour that attracted me, for I have always been fond of reds, the deeper the better. The most beautiful things in the world are red. Poppies, and apples, and the blood that beads forth from a finger pricked on an errant sewing-needle. When life first rose out of the primordial muck it was red, you can be sure of it. A woman who wears red lipstick will always catch my eye, for I know she understands that red is the only real colour in this grey and ugly world. Do you wear red lipstick?”
I tell him that that is a very personal question and strain my ears to find the source of the quiet. It takes a few seconds for me to realize that the playlist has been shut off. I look beyond the customer to the registers, just visible from my desk. Only a moment ago we were fully staffed and bursting with people, every cashier tending a busy line of tired, impatient shoppers. Christmas is coming, there are toys and wrapping paper and tins of Danish butter cookies to buy.
The lights above all the stations are off. None of the registers are manned. The customers are nowhere to be seen.
“Personal questions are the only kind worth asking. For the record, I think the right sort of red would suit you tremendously. The common wisdom is that only certain women are able to wear it, but I can easily see you in one of the darker shades—something almost purple, like the fresh and steaming liver of a deer. This toaster, however, was cherry-coloured, not liver-coloured. Well, I say ‘toaster,’ but of course my tongue is firmly in my cheek. When I took it from its box, you see, it became clear to me that it was not a toaster all, but something else altogether, disguised as a toaster. They do that, you know; the easiest way to get an item to circulate is by making it resemble something else. The Trojans understood this instinctively, as do chameleons and elves. These disguises work on the average observer. But being old, and—forgive me—wise, I am a hard man to fool. I know when I am looking at a toaster and when I am looking at a load of bunk.”
It isn’t just the playlist. The buzzing of the fluorescent lights, the background hum of electricity, the soft cushion of sound generated by dozens of people occupying the same space, all of it is gone. The silence settles in around us. When I crane my neck to look beyond the registers to the sales floor, not caring how obvious the gesture it, I see no one. I ask him what he thinks the toaster is, if not a toaster, and try to swallow down the unease that has suddenly risen in my throat.
“That is hard to say. I have seen a good many such items in my day, and each one has a different purpose. I once came upon a blender that, upon the depression of the Ice Crush button, sent a hot little throb into the finger of its user and obliterated a loved one from his memory. His mother, perhaps, or his sweetheart, or his child, would thereafter be a stranger to him, and he would feel nothing but dismay and confusion when confronted with proof of their former connection. An electric egg timer I found in a suburban rummage sale was home to a vicious djinn that emerged at the three-minute mark to wreak merry hell on the surrounding area until the timer ticked back down to zero again. There was a plastic microphone on the market several years ago that was meant to record a child’s words and return them to him in a higher or lower pitch, for his amusement; instead, it divulged to him the secrets of a universe a mere hairsbreadth away from our own, and drove many an innocent tot to madness. Never in all my life have I seen any two of their inventions do the same thing. Their similitude is one of intent, not design; it scarcely matters what they do, so long as they make mischief. I have dedicated my life—and a very long life it has been, I assure you—to tracking down those little machines of theirs, and destroying them if I can. That, indeed, was my entire reason for coming into this store tonight. The things are often hidden in places like this—it is so easy for them to blend in, just one more anonymous box in a pile of anonymous boxes.”
We can’t be alone in the store. There were people here moments ago, customers, coworkers, the night manager who spends all her time playing online bingo in the cash office, the security guard with the stupid moustache. It is not possible that they have all disappeared in the space of a few minutes. I tell myself this despite what I see when I look beyond the desk, which is nothing and no one. Just me and this man, alone together.
“I told you before that I am adept at reading faces, and so I can tell that you are astonished. Alarmed. Perhaps even afraid—and a host of other words that begin with a, one of the better letters of the alphabet. And no wonder! Your expression, in this moment, is a twin of the one I wore myself when I stumbled upon the first of their inventions, so many years ago. I can no longer recall precisely what it was, for it was many years ago, before letters and lipstick and electrical devices, and only just after red. Perhaps it was not a thing at all. It could have been fire, or language, or the increased cranial capacity of Homo habilis. It could have been dreams. It could have been the world itself.”
He is enjoying himself. I can tell from the way his eyes gleam, the eagerness with which he leans across the counter towards me. The hair on his knuckles seems to flutter in a breeze I cannot feel. I ask him who they are.
The people, I clarify. The they who are so very inventive. He tilts his head to the side, like a dog, and for a long moment says nothing at all. Then he smiles. It is a broad, painful-looking smile, in imitation, perhaps, of my own, which has long since shriveled and died.
“Young lady, do you live alone?”
I say nothing. My hand fumbles under the counter for the panic button, the one meant to trigger an alarm that can be heard throughout the store in case of a robbery. Nothing happens when I press it. I don’t really expect it to.
“Never mind. I already know that you do, and after all, why shouldn’t you? These are modern times, and there is no reason for a young lady not to make her own way in the world. Living alone, then, you will have noticed a certain feeling that settles in when you are home, after the bustle of coming through the door has worn off. When you find yourself lying in bed with no lights on; or sitting next to a window that looks out into the dark; or standing in the shower with your back to the curtain, closing your eyes against the sting of stray soapsuds. In such moments, you may be overtaken by a sudden certainty that you are being observed—that if you were to turn around, you would see someone there.”
I have felt that way, of course. Everyone has. That doesn’t explain the prickles chasing themselves up and down my arms, the shiver itching beneath the surface of my skin. The silence presses down around us, the air soft and cotton-thick. I find myself longing for the noise of the store, the sound of children crying and parents cursing them out, even that stupid playlist.
“When this suspicion overwhelms you—that you are not alone, that perhaps you never are, that perhaps you never have been—you may not be able to bring yourself to turn around, and it will be agonizing; you will suffer tremendously, thinking of who (or, indeed, what) could be standing behind you. But if you do turn, and you see that no one is there, something worse will happen. At first you will breathe a sigh of relief. Your pulse will slow, and you will continue reading or sleeping or washing your hair. But then a nasty thought will crawl into your mind, one you will find impossible to banish. You will wonder if, perhaps, the intruder is simply uncommonly quick and turned as you turned. Or if he is watching you from some hidden place. The walls, for example, or the space behind the door. Or perhaps—and this is the most hideous thought of all, is it not?—if he was indeed there, and is there still, and has somehow managed to make you believe that the space he occupies is empty.”
His gaze is steady, the glint in his eye gone. The lights above him seem brighter than they did before, a steady burn of white gold. My fingers find the panic button and push it again and again. No alarm. No noise. It feels as though the world has dwindled down to a tiny circle, with nobody and nothing in it but the two of us, leaning over this counter.
Unless there is someone standing behind me.
“They are the eyes you feel upon you when you are alone. They are what you cannot turn fast enough to see. That’s who they are.”
He says something then that I can’t quite catch, a string of syllables that do not match the movements of his mouth. I try to play it back in my mind to make sense of it, but the sounds trip and tangle up in each other, hopeless snarls of noise and meaning, a Gordian knot of words. I could, I think, stand here forever, trying to decipher it.
I wonder if I will stand here forever. If he will ever let me move again.
I realize that I cannot hear my heart beating.
And then he laughs, and suddenly sound rushes into my ears once more, like water flooding a boat. The lights dim and flicker, casting everything in their familiar greenish light. Behind him I see a current of movement—customers milling in front of racks of discounted socks, cashiers hurrying to their stations with rolls of change, greeters turning surly faces towards the door. The security guard with the stupid moustache trudges past, his face a weary blank. I try to flag him down with a discreet wave of my hand, but he either misses the gesture or ignores it. The customer follows my gaze and chuckles.
“No need to bother him, my dear. I am just about to quit this establishment and extract myself from your lovely hair. Places to see, you understand, and people to meet. Or vice versa. I simply wanted to educate you a little while I am here. To alert you to the danger of all those little machines in their boxes. You never can be sure what such a thing will do. They know that, of course. That’s why they send their inventions here, so cunningly disguised, so pleasingly convenient, and full of inviting buttons to press. The world will end that way someday, at the hand of some trusting fool pressing buttons. You do not have to worry about the so-called toaster, however. I smashed it to pieces with a meat mallet, and it is no longer a danger to anyone.”
He reaches across the counter then to pat my hand. His fingertips have the rough texture of old twine, and for a moment I imagine that I can feel the rough brush of coarse hair against my skin, as though the hair that grows on his knuckles also grows on his palms. I want to recoil, to shout, to draw some attention to the counter and the person in front of it, but when I open my mouth I find that my tongue feels thick and gluey, a useless wad inside my mouth like so much sodden paper.
“You may not be able to speak for some time—perhaps a day, perhaps a week. Certainly no longer than a month. It will be inconvenient, and for that I do apologize. But I must make sure that you do not run about telling tales while my words are still fresh inside your head. Once they begin to rot and this evening becomes nothing more than a dim recollection of discomfort and unease, you will be able to use your tongue once more. But you will be wary of machines from now on, and you will indulge strange men you meet on trains, and you will wear lipstick in glowing shades of purple-red. And so my time with you will have done some good.”
Giving my hand one last pat, he pushes himself off the counter and shuffles a few steps back, brushing off the front of his overcoat. Then, to my astonishment, he performs a strange, lopsided little bow.
“I filled out that little card after all, by the way. You may keep it, if you like.”
With that he turns, pushing his way into the surging crowd of shoppers and loiterers and thieves. I try to track him with my eyes, following the black overcoat as it weaves through other, brighter colours, but his pace is quick and the store is busy. I lose him almost immediately.
When the hell did he have the time to fill out the card? I pick it up and stare at it, still trying and failing to make my heavy tongue form a coherent sound. The card is smudged from the oils on his fingers, decorated with one stray black hair. He has scrawled a single line in bright red ink across the space where he was meant to list his telephone number. The letters are so spiky and malformed that I squint at them for several minutes before I understand their meaning.
LOOK BEHIND YOU.
Elliott Gish is a writer and librarian from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her stories have appeared in the Baltimore Review, the New Quarterly, Wigleaf, the Dalhousie Review, and many others. Her debut novel, Grey Dog, is forthcoming from ECW Press in Spring 2024.