Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Sweetheart

 

My supervisor Stan and I were wasting the last part of our shift by the camera counter when from nowhere this smoldering pair of eyes in a short dress and a long brown jacket appeared across the aisle. She was my height in her boots, or taller, and old enough. She made her way towards the As Seen on TV display. Stan stroked his big terrible Viking beard.

It was my job to say something to people who walked past the electronics counter, so I asked, “Can I help you, miss?” She blushed and flashed me the greenest, most devilish look.

“All set. Thanks.”

“Sweet mother fuck,” Stan said. He tried to catch her attention with a twitchy wave of his first two fingers, but she had already turned down one of the other aisles.

“Please don’t,” I said.

He licked his front teeth.

“You’re a brute,” I said.

“Savage.” He clapped my shoulder. “Cover me. I’m going in.”

He stepped, but I was faster. I planted my shoulder low and towards the center of his chest enough to stop him. He just stared, big eyed, as if to say, you really just did that?

“I asked nicely.”

“Easy, Galahad,” he said. I didn’t move. The air between us got heavy. By the rigid look on his face, I wasn’t sure if he was going to bust my mouth or kiss it. Finally, thank God, a female employee got on the horn. “Security to the office; security to the office,” she said, meaning Stan to the office, on account of the fact that our store was too small and in too dismal a shopping mall to have dedicated security goons.

“What a waste,” Stan said. He slapped my jaw with mock affection and brushed past. The sound of his footsteps shrank away. I went back to washing my glass top counter.

“Ahem,” a little voice said. I looked up. The girl focused her green eyes low on the glinting gadgets in the glass case. Under the yellow flood light her hair was black, black, black. She ran her white fingers along the metal edge of the case and looked like she was counting the seconds in her head. Tucked between her elbow and her waist was an orange faux leather purse that I hadn’t noticed earlier.

“All set?” I asked. 

She said, “What’s the best one?”

I stepped forward. “Well, this Canon”—I pointed to our working display—“this one just came out.”

“Hmm,” she said.

“But the Nikons are popular.”

She set her purse by the display and took a metallic plum-colored camera from its stand. She fiddled with the security cable.

“It won’t alarm?” she asked.

“No. You’re good,” I said. “That one’s a sexy little piece.”

“It is.” She showed a bit of her front teeth in what wasn’t quite a smile.

“The power is on top.” I leaned over the counter to show her. Her perfume was thick and sweet like syrup in a can of peaches.

“There?” she asked.

“Push it,” I said and she did and the thing sprang to life.

“I got it.” She leveled the barrel at me with a jolt.

“Oh no.” I stepped behind the display.

“OK, OK, I won’t.” She turned the lens down an aisle behind her so I could see the screen. “How do I …” She narrowed her focus.

I leaned in closer again and—Jesus, those peaches—I said, “What?”

Then in the little window of the screen there was Stan and his inverted triangle of tangled brown beard, turning to check the aisles left and right as he walked back towards us.

She stiffened. “Is it three already? I’m meeting a friend,” she said. Which was obviously a lie.

“Never mind him,” I said.

“You’re a sweetheart.” She set the camera back on its stand. “But I have to go. Thank you,” she said, and then she was walking.

I needed something to say. Something casual that started with “Hey.” But I had nothing, except maybe I could ask if she liked coffee? In a couple hours when my shift ended, she might let me buy her an iced cappuccino.

She disappeared down an aisle.

I followed her, but she wasn’t there. I checked the surrounding aisles. More of the same. Nothing.

Next thing I knew, Stan was back leaning his fat, hairy elbow against my counter.

“What was that?” he said.

“Nothing.”

“Oh, nothing.” He craned his neck to see which aisle the girl had taken.

Stan the Terrible. He was almost thirty and still a regular at parties that high school and home-from-college kids threw in the woods along Lakeshore Road. One night out at Boudreau’s Pit, I saw him shove his tongue into the mouth of a drunk and pretty friend of one of my friends. The poor girl. Next day at work, I told him off. He stood his ground. “Guys like you and me,” he had said, “we don’t get many chances. When it happens to you, you’ll get what I mean. See an opportunity, and nothing else matters.” He was full of shit, I knew that, and I didn’t care for him lumping me in the same category as guys like him. But arguing with Stan was impossible.

“What about the call?” I asked.

“Someone found slit CD cases behind the diapers,” he said. “They want me to watch the security video.” He looked at me. “But you know how useful that usually is.”

And then my eyes fell on the pastel orange handbag resting against the camera display.

“Sure,” I said.

It was simple. Perfect.

I jumped out of my corner and grabbed the purse.

“Hey, what’s up?” Stan said.

“Be right back.” I left him and the electronics counter behind me.

I did the aisle-checking thing, snapping my head left and right to see down adjacent rows as I merged into the central aisle towards the front of the store. In the distance, a white calf flashed once between the hem of a girl’s skirt and her brown boots. She passed through the security posts and into the mall.

I ran, but by the time I got there, a middle-aged woman and her two fat little kids had taken up the entrance with their cart. I worked a sideways maneuver through the posts and made it through unscathed, except I accidentally set off the alarm because I spilled the cart and its contents onto the mall floor. 

People on both sides of the mall entry were stopping. They checked their bags and looked for an OK from the woman at the service desk. The checkout manager passed me this glare, like “What the hell, Pete. Help, will you?”

But all I could think was, I am stuck, and each second I stay stuck is wasted forever. So, I made like I hadn’t seen her look. I kept my head low, my elbows in and tore through the clump. I came out into the mall corridor. The girl with the jacket was already halfway across the wing.

“Miss,” I shouted. But the numb chatter on the floor was too much, and I couldn’t get her attention.

No other choice. I fixed my eye on her brown coat, and kept after her, pounding my beat-to-shit sneaker soles against the tiles. I weaved around an old man, and pushed between a youngish couple with a stroller. A crowd of skateboard punks blocked the straight line between me and the girl, and I veered wide around a potted plant. There was fire in my lungs now, and a stitch running the length of my ribs. But I was closer. I could hear the click of her heels. I had her.

Then she ducked into the packed food court and was gone.

I stopped. I had to stop. I breathed through my mouth, slow and deep. The air was sweet and spicy with the smell of curry. My white-socked big toe stabbed through the front of my sneaker like an ungodly mutation. I couldn’t do this.

I thought, why not page her? The mall’s customer service kiosk was right there. Only thing was, I didn’t know the girl’s name. And I couldn’t ask the librarian-type woman at the desk to page, “would the lady with the devilish green eyes please collect her handbag?”

Then I thought, just open the purse, stupid. She must have a cell or a wallet or I.D., or something. Simple problem, simple solution. Right? So, I touched the zipper, but something in the gently interlocking teeth and the look of the delicate stitching stopped me. Maybe it was the shape of the handbag or the suddenly, starkly flesh-colored zipper in my fingers. Maybe I just wasn’t raised that way. I don’t know. Point is, I couldn’t tear it open.

I scanned the crowd and considered my options. Everywhere I turned, I could smell peaches. There were high heeled boots at every T-shirt stand. A swishing skirt hem with every new cluster of jeering kids. But never in the right combination.

I pulled away from the thick of the crowd and circled the court.

“Wait up,” someone called over the din. I searched for a face to match the voice. A hand fell on my shoulder and spun me around.

It was Stan, and not far behind him in the distance there was the girl, speeding away. I jumped forward, but Stan stopped me.

“What are you trying to do to me, Pete?” he said. He placed a hand on the collar of my smock and stooped low. His wide face and small black eyes blocked out my view. “Damaged merchandise, upset customers, crying kids.” He enumerated his grief on the first three fingers of his free hand. “All I’m trying to say is,” he said, “maybe we won’t have to let you go, but we have some serious paperwork to file. That means you, in the office. Now.”

And she was right there behind him. I could see her. She edged around the food court, past the Dunkin’ Donuts.

“Look, kid,” he said “I like you, but . . .”

“The cart thing was a bonehead move,” I said. “you’re right to be upset, but, listen, I really just need to do this thing.” I held up the purse.

“You think you have a chance, huh?”

“I don’t know, I guess.” I shrugged. “Yes.”

Stan twisted the end of his beard. “All right, get the fuck out of here.” He shook his head. “But come back.”

I was already moving. “Two minutes,” I hollered. “That’s all I need.”

I cut straight through the food court, fixed on the girl’s bobbing dark hair. When I was close enough, I shouted. “Hey!” Our eyes connected for a second, then she turned and went. Clearly she hadn’t seen the purse. I called again, holding the bag high over my head this time. She quickened her pace and made her way towards the doors, not running but gliding.

Outside the main entrance, I followed her through an orange and black stream of uniformed band kids as the last of them poured out of a yellow school bus. We passed a grizzled windbreaker-wearing woman. Then the girl turned into the parking lot, out onto a grassy island.

“Miss, you forgot your purse!” I said.

I nearly mowed her over as she stopped in place. We had reached the end of the island. Her eyes were a little more drawn than I’d remembered, but still a wicked green, even in the full face of the sun. She flashed me a cut of her white teeth. Submissively, desperately, I held out the bag, for the first time understanding its peculiar weightlessness, its empty crushable lightness. My mistake registered in her eyes, but it didn’t stop her. The purse floated from my hand. The paper stuffing crunched beneath the leather when she squeezed. A little security tag poked from one of the bag’s side pockets, where it had been zippered away.

“Thank you,” she said.

I put my hands on my waist and tried to control my breathing. We shared an awkward silence. I felt like she was waiting for me to say something, but I couldn’t imagine what.

The yellow school bus rounded the bend and revved past us, stirring a breeze. It rustled the hem of her skirt and brushed one side of her coat open. She was fast—she pulled the front of it closed, almost as quickly as it flopped away from her small pointy chest—but she wasn’t fast enough. The rainbow whir of a half-dozen CDs glinted over the lip of a pocket in the coat’s lining. She fixed one of the buttons and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.

“You are sweet,” she said, smiling for the first time. She settled her weight into her hip. “Are you free? I’d let you buy me a coffee.”

“Yeah?” A dim, syrupy sweet waft of perfume buzzed my nose. “I could do that.”

Only after I had said it, I thought of Stan sitting in his office, the empty canvas chair facing his desk and the disciplinary forms I wasn’t signing. There was still time. I could go back. Though, I knew that if the guy over Stan’s head, the store manager, didn’t sack me, he would make an example of me. That would mean split shifts on Sundays, front cash register duty, wash cloth folding, cleaning bathrooms. Back that way, there were only questions that I couldn’t answer, didn’t want to answer. There was humiliation and only a shot at salvaging a crappy summer job. But out here, there was something. Sunshine and an unusual girl, smiling.

We walked away from the plaza and the restaurants, out towards the main road. I took off my smock and felt the sun hot on my back through my white shirt. For a second, I was afraid of how I would look to someone watching me on the parking lot’s closed-circuit video feed, someone who might think I had known all along, someone who now had exactly the evidence they needed to lock me up, blemish my record, and ruin my chances of working a decent job ever again. But the fear refused to let itself be taken seriously. We had already reached the grassy edge of the parking lot, and we were breaking into a run.

 

Dustin Martin was born in 1988. He lives with his wife in New Hampshire, where he is at work on a novel and a collection of short stories. This is his first piece for GHLL.