I wrote this story some time ago, in 2006, when I was living in Rochester, MN and working at Super Target. It is one of the first stories I wrote after graduating college with intent to publish. I submitted it to Glimmer Train’s short fiction contest. I paid my $15 entrance fee and was either rejected or ignored.
I read it aloud a few weeks ago for the Two With Water reading series at Beauty Bar in Chicago. The theme of the night was “B(u)y Product.”
Portrait of a Thumb
By Bobby Evers
Rose’s legs hurt. It was age settling in. Annoyed, she tossed her purchases on the dusty conveyer belt; some fruit and bras, pads, batteries for Maria, as well as other varied household items. She was careful not to let her things spill across the hard plastic dividing line into the belongings of the people ahead of her. The beeping of the pricing guns was like the maddening song of robotic birds, chirping out of time. And of course, not a clock in sight. That was to make you shop longer. Tsk. They make you sleepy with their siren song, showering you in sky-high shelves decorated with beautiful labels, and then you lose all track of time. “I must have this!” you say. Then you get home and nothing works exactly to your liking, and everything is just a collection of small disappointments.
Rose remembered the great package of dog food on the bottom of her cart.
“Excuse me… sir?” she said, getting the attention of the boy at the cash register. He was a young thing, shaggy hair, bangs in his face. He looked up from his menial work, pulling groceries across a tiny laser, and looked Rose in the eye. “Is there a way you could scan this dog food without me lifting the thing onto the counter?”
“Yeah, I’ll zap it at the end.” He said it quietly, almost to himself. He was focused on the task at hand, assisting the young couple ahead of her. Not focused. Bored, maybe. In a daze. It was at that moment that something in his face struck Rose. Dammit, if he wasn’t a beautiful young man; a strong jaw, a rigid brow. He had dark eyes, red underneath like a soldier that hadn’t slept since Christmas. And his hands. What large man’s hands this young thing had. How old was he? Twenty? Definitely older than Maria. Maria was fifteen. Maria probably didn’t know who he was. Certainly out of high school. He probably had this job to pay his bills. Rose remembered those days. He was probably an artist, or a sculptor. A musician. Yes, you get blisters from playing guitar strings. She’d heard that somewhere and it sounded true.
Suddenly it was her turn and the boy made a grab for the pads. She watched him, watched him closely to see how he reacted. Not a flinch. In all her years Rose had never met a man that acted so maturely toward pads. It caught her breath in her throat how he just pinched them like they were nothing. He wasn’t afraid at all. The most natural thing in the world. She’d tried surrounding her husband with boxes upon boxes of tampons, bulk packages of pads. But he never quite adjusted to it. Tampax, Kotex, Always. She tried sending him to the store to pick some up and he somehow always always always forgot. As if a tiny part of him believed it was an imaginary thing he could pretend never existed. And here this man-boy was treating them like just another product.
Fixing her eyes on his nametag pinned to his red smock, she learned his name was Jay. Oh, Jay. The lemons spilled and rolled across the scanner. Jay fumbled for them, using his forearm to attempt to catch them before they landed on the dirty tile floor. He succeeded. His expression never broke from a stern and affixed gaze. Punching some numbers clumsily on his keypad, he gently put them in the white plastic sack and resumed the mindless scanning. More and more, the scanning continued, pulling, grabbing, tossing. His work was endless. Always, she watched his fingers, dancing across her products like the bones in her body. The way he bent her new red dress with his wrist was the same way he would touch the small of her back when they tangoed. He was quick, but surprisingly gentle.
Was he a clumsy lover? She wondered about his kisses. Would he plant them on her neck, on her collar bone? Could he look her in the face when he made love to her? Could he make her soar into the tall sunrise like an angel on fire? Or would he balk at the notion of their union? Would he hesitate by the blueprint of her design? She reflected on the two of them standing in checkout lane seven. What were they if not two hearts beating in a great beautiful world of consumerism, pumping blood into a network of complicated machinery?
Yes, Jay, scan my water softener salt pellets. Ring it up, Sweety, ring it all the way up. You innocent thing, you delicious peach. She wanted to bite his skin. What was it about him she found so endearing, so familiar? He was young enough to be her son, but old enough to give her what she was missing. I could seduce you. I could have you. My bed could be a nest to you, and I could put my legs around you like an egg and I would sit there ‘til you came out of your shell, a beautiful thing I gave to the world. And what a satisfied smile I would have! To give the world something so special.
Jay scanned her bras next, and with expert fluidity, with meticulous fingers, he removed them from their small plastic hangers. Some transparent, some white, he pulled them all off like he knew his way around a bra. He palmed the lacy cups with one artisan’s hand as the fingers of his other undid bra after bra, as if to undress her, tossing hanger after hanger into the noisy abyss under his counter. She watched him closely.
It was then that she noticed he was sweating. There! In the mat of his sideburns!
Of course! Of course she remembered who he reminded her of. Why, it was a face she hadn’t thought of in years, and hadn’t seen in twice that long. When she was Maria’s age Rose spent the summer with her aunt in Guanajuato. It was a summer of horseback riding and mountain climbing. Rose took scores and scores of photographs of the scenery, of the Mexican sunset, and every person she met. She ate a lot of hot food and learned impossible things. There was a village boy that always came up to see her there and they tried to learn the other’s language.
“Rosa,” he would say. His name was Alejandro and he was a few years older. “¿Cómo se dice ‘bella’ en ingles?”
He was the boy who taught her how to tongue kiss and had hands just like Jay’s that he knew how to use. The boys of Mexico. It had been so long. How dramatic, always throwing around words like ‘love.’ These romantic notions of passion and idolizations of women that were nothing more than successful ways of getting her into bed. And all she wanted was one picture of Alejandro that she took on the last night she ever saw him. She got off the plane and the very first thing she did was developed the photos. Every picture was a beautiful panoramic keepsake of mountainous countryside. But the only one she wanted was obscured by the bright roundness of her own fifteen-year-old thumb. It was the one physical artifact that remained of Alejandro, ruined. It cracked her chest open. Briefly, she considered removing the thumb as a punishment to herself.
“Don’t forget the dog food,” she told Jay, hips on hands.
“Oh, yeah.” He picked up a black plastic pricing gun attached to a curly telephone cord. He looked down past her waist and thighs toward the bottom of the cart. Rose leaned down to adjust the bag so that the barcode was in plain view, as plain as the view down her blouse. She never took her eyes off Jay. Want me, she thought. And yes. She saw him look.
She paid him. And just like that, the transaction was over. Jay slammed the register closed, rattling the change in it. He tore off her receipt and forced it on her like a goodbye note and told her to have a nice day. It was so abrupt and so strange that she was surprised it had come from him. So impersonal. Drained, she left with a sigh. She had to pick up Maria soon from school. Next year Maria could drive herself. Soon she would be cast off into a thankless world of regret and mediocrity and it broke Rose’s heart to think about the men who would enter Maria’s life, unable to ever be exactly what she needed. Oh well, she decided. No use punishing herself for that.