The Things That We Touch
The light at Checkstand Two was perpetually broken. That meant that a decent part of Tina’s shift was spent waving down the customers impatiently shifting their weight at Checkstand One and inviting them into her line.
“I’m open over here.”
The customers would look up then, hesitate just a moment before making eye contact with each other and sorting themselves out without words. You first. No, you. Please, I insist. Then a few of them would shuffle over to her line, the fluorescent light of the discount department store making them look more gray and haggled than they might outside of the store’s double doors. Gray like crumpled newspapers, cold steel and storm clouds, passing rains.
“Find everything you were looking for?”
She asked each time, even though she didn’t particularly care if they had found what they needed or not. She probably wouldn’t see them again. The question was standard practice and helped her earn the paycheck every other Friday. And anyway, it seemed a ridiculous question—the thought that anyone would possibly find what is was they were truly looking for among the crowded and dusty aisles of Stark’s. A cavernous miscellany of jumbled items, unused pieces reduced and priced to sell. Unnecessary belongings waiting for someone to take them home, wrap them in memories, stitch them into stories. Memories and stories that might sting someone under their skin in just the right way one day, choke their throat with emotion and wistful thinking when they remembered. Until then, they’d sit awkwardly on the white metal shelves, gummy red stickers advertising dollars and cents.
Today, the small woman with the curly white hair shook her head.
“Do you have any more of these?”
She held up a tiny porcelain figurine shaped like a mouse, wearing a green sweater and boots. Tina wiped her hands on her black Stark’s apron and took the figurine from the woman, turned it over in her hands.
“I can check.”
She turned around and called to David, the sulky manager with the greasy blond ponytail and permanent scowl.
“Do we have more of these?” She held up the mouse in his sweater and boots. A chunk of curly brown hair flopped into one eye and she smoothed it back up into her bun.
David wrinkled his forehead and frowned. He shrugged his shoulders, his plastic nametag clicking as it brushed against a button on his shirt.
“I’ll look in the back.” He slunk away to scan the dark shelves in the back of the store.
Tina turned back to the woman, the porcelain mouse still warm in her hand. Suddenly waiting in the awkward silence of strangers searching for words. She scanned the line of customers. Arms loaded down with folded sweaters, marked down pillows, ice cube trays. Shaggy footstools and frivolous apple corers. Poorly fitting slippers, hand weights that would never see the light of day.
A woman in a red turtleneck sighed and tapped a foot, juggled the plastic wrapped bedding set in her arms.
“So…do you collect those?” Tina asked the woman with the mouse, attempting conversation to break the silence. A man in line impatiently thunked his heavy garden Buddha sculpture to the ground, frustration and sweat beading on the surface of his salt and pepper hair.
The woman nodded. “For my grandchildren,” she said, wrinkled lips cracking into a smile at the connection.
Tina nodded, looked at the woman’s pale blue cardigan buttoned over her thin frame, her knobby knuckles reaching for her wallet.
“I like to have something for them when they visit.”
She opened the wallet, held out the photograph of three children posed around a rocking chair. Tina looked at their hair styled into braids and ribbon twists, their missing teeth. Those poses of hands on shoulders, chins tilted at just the right angle into the camera flash.
Tina turned over the mouse in her hands, scratched at the price tag with her fingernail. Someone pays to have these things, she thought. Small shreds of connection, instant threads of family.
David reappeared from the back just then, his mood turned sour from energy spent rummaging the crowded back shelves.
“We’re out of those things,” he called loudly over his shoulder, moving on to the gardening area and more interesting matters.
Tina nodded, then shrugged an apology to the woman as she folded her grandchildren’s photos back into her worn brown leather wallet.
“I guess we’re out.”
“Okay then,” the woman said. She handed a soft five dollar bill over the counter.
Tina punched buttons on the register, made change in coins. Tucked the mouse figurine into a small paper bag, folded over at the top. Stories in objects, she thought. Fragments of fear stuck to a yellow teapot. Scraps of old sadness folded into blue linen napkins. Years of grief in the stuffing of furniture, heartache coming unstitched on the edges.
“Here you go.” She pressed the bag into the woman’s hand, thought about her giving it to her grandchildren the next time she saw them.
“Thank you.” The woman walked off. She moved slowly, but stiffly, Tina thought. Like a jagged edge, rigid reeds emerging from water. Tina didn’t stop watching until she was out the door.
“Hello?” The voice cut sharply, made Tina jump in her skin. She blinked at the next customer, a woman with a splintery bob haircut, a pile of lacy bras over her arm. She raised an eyebrow at Tina, antsy.
“Hello, sorry.” Tina rang up the items and removed the hangers, the impatient clicking of the woman’s nails prickling on her skin.
“Find everything you were looking for?”
The rest of the customers flowed through after that. A child with a thick mystery novel, his brown eyes shining with excitement. A woman with a set of matching washcloths, barely looking up from her cellphone while paying. Two men chatting animatedly about organic gardening. Two neckties, a hammer, and a red egg timer between them.
Tina looked up at the clock, minutes ticking steadily towards quitting time. She was about to loosen the knot in her apron when a vaguely familiar voice floated past.
The woman had dark hair flowing over her shoulders, rippled with streaks of gray. A black fleece zipped up to her throat. She was close to Tina’s age, maybe older. Tina studied the lines of her tanned face, frantically tried to place her.
“Sandra. I’m Jake’s sister.” Her eyes were heavy, little half-moons of fatigue settling underneath them.
She set her packages down on the counter. A lopsided stack of packaged underwear and fitted sheets. Two lint rollers.
“Sandra! How are you?” Tina smiled, started scanning the items into the cash register, grateful for the recollection forming in her brain.
Tina and Jake had dated for one summer, years ago, after high school. The heat swelled and spiked that August, the hottest in decades. People talked about the dog days of summer, and Jake and Tina laughed and made wishes on Sirius the Dog Star when it rose and set with the sun. Speckles of constellations, the brightest star in the night sky. And the days and nights of that summer were muggy and humid and sultry, and they stayed wrapped in each other. Sweat on their salty skin, always touching, poetry dancing on bodies.
Sandra had already been away at school then, although she came home to visit occasionally. Tina had always envied her swagger and confidence, her black boots and eyeliner. Even though she didn’t talk to her much, sometimes when Sandra would whisk away into her room, Tina would catch a glance of her world. Morrissey piping out of the stereo, posters of places around the world that Tina dreamed about visiting.
After the break up, Sandra and Jake’s family felt distant to Tina as she gradually grew apart from them. Those summer evenings and memories slipping away. A soft fraying rope. Grains of sand glittering, scattering on wind.
But now, here Sandra was again in front of her. It had been years since Tina had thought of Jake. The ex. Ex seemed like such a funny word now as it rattled around in her brain. A life so far off and removed, old associations. The broken webs formerly interlaced with another.
“How is everything? How’s your family?” Tina asked, shaking open a plastic bag to hold Sandra’s items. “It’s been so long.”
Sandra’s jaw was tense, held hard like granite. Her dark eyes flickered with a wave of something that felt wrong, unsettled. Tina wondered if she had overstepped some invisible boundary by asking.
“You don’t know.”
She didn’t say it as a question, but more like she felt sorry for Tina.
Tina shook her head, her stomach twisting to a sickening knot. She set down Sandra’s things in slow motion, suddenly not wanting to hold someone else’s underwear when receiving bad news. Something so intimate, that clinging against skin, thin fabric.
“Jake is dead,” Sandra said softly, her voice tripping over the last syllable. “He was killed last year.”
Tina felt the breath jolt in her chest like a punch. She opened and closed her mouth, but no words came out.
“I thought you knew,” Sandra was saying.
Behind Sandra in line, a woman clutched a floral printed ironing board, raised up on her tiptoes to get a better view of when the transaction would be finished. She cleared her throat loudly.
Tina nodded, forced herself to keep ringing up Sandra’s belongings. “I hadn’t heard. I’m so sorry.”
The two women looked at each other, grief hanging raw and unpolished between them.
“It was a car accident,” Sandra whispered as she paid for her sheets and underwear. “A drunk driver. Up on Montgomery Road.”
Tina knew the way that road curved softly before jutting out sharply like a hip. She thought of smooth bone snapping, crashes that broke like ocean waves, spinning metal and tires under indigo sky. Late summer constellations, limp bodies counting last breaths.
“I’m so sorry,” she said again. She had no other words to offer. She handed Sandra her bag and change, their fingertips brushing. Tina wished that she had something to give other than home goods on sale.
The woman with the ironing board lost patience.
“Are we here to exchange pleasantries, or is someone working around here?”
Tina drew in a sharp breath, felt the fiery urge to snap something nasty, but Sandra put a hand on her arm.
“I need to get going.” She gave Tina a weak smile, the skin around her eyes crinkling. “It was good to see you.”
The words tumbled out of her mouth like rocks, and they both paused there awkwardly. Both knowing that it wasn’t really true. The brief recognition of their faces triggering waves of fresh wounds, tiny undoings.
Sandra walked out of Stark’s, never looked back over her shoulder. The woman paid $19.99 for the ironing board and told Tina to keep the change. The line at Checkstand One looped and wrapped back to the shelves of pots and pans. Tina waved a hand in the air.
“Open over here,” she called, gesturing them to her burnt out light.
She stepped out of the bathroom ten minutes later, cold water splashed on her face. Into the employee lounge where she pulled off her black apron and folded it, placed it in her backpack. Punched out her timecard on the clock.
Her co-worker Sarah was outside on the narrow balcony, the only designated smoking area for employees. She waved Tina over.
“Another day, another dollar, right?” She pulled a fresh cigarette from the pack, held it out for Tina, even though Tina reminded her every day that she didn’t smoke. “How was your shift?”
Tina shook her head at the cigarette, then leaned over the balcony railing, watching cars pass below, slipping in and out of lanes. Scattering off to their various locations, like leaves along the sidewalk, new ashes over the ocean.
There were smeared handprints along the railing, and she tried to match her fingerprints to them, wondering about the people who had stood there before her, hands in the same places.
“Same old, same old,” she said finally with a shrug, deciding against telling Sarah about the news she’d received.
Sarah turned her back to the wind, cupped her hand around her lighter as she tipped her head to the side to inhale.
“Yeah.” She ran a hand through her spiky black hair, a stripe of purple streaking the bangs. “Hey, want to go out with us tonight? We’re singing karaoke at Wildcat.”
Tina shook her head, letting go of the thick metal railing. “I’m going to have a mellow night. Thanks anyway. See you tomorrow?”
Sarah nodded without speaking, sucking on her cigarette. She exhaled and the smoke curled into a halo behind her head before disintegrating into the air. “See you tomorrow.”
Tina tossed restlessly that night, partly from sticky heat and partly from her raveled thoughts. She’d slip into half-sleep occasionally, turbulent dreams that felt tense and unsettled. Images without words, faceless strangers. Mysterious music, short phrases of movement. A glove in a box. A hairbrush on a table. Weeping willows swaying in the wind.
The glowing numbers of her bedside clock read 3:34 when Tina got up for a glass of water from the kitchen. She filled the glass from the faucet in the dark, the hum of the refrigerator buzzing through the otherwise silent kitchen. She sipped the water as she leaned against the black counter, her mind wide awake.
She remembered something just then, set the glass down on the counter with a clink. Bare feet padding down the hallway, her hair loose and billowing around her pale nightgown. She went directly to the bedroom closet. Standing on her toes, she shuffled boxes around on the top shelf, pushed back piles of sweaters.
The black shoebox, the one with the sale sticker on the side, all the way at the back of the closet. She pulled it down and set it on the bed, lifted off the lid.
She had almost forgotten about it, and she lifted the objects from the box one at a time, feeling them in her hands. A stack of letters tied with a thin leather cord. The bud of a rose, petals crisp and dried. Two stubs of tickets to The Pixies. A white envelope of Polaroid photographs. A wooden bracelet painted to look like a zebra, her favorite animal, two pointed ears and a face gently carved into the wood.
He had hand carved that bracelet for her, painted it himself, tied it into a box with a piece of twine.
“Each zebra’s stripe pattern is unique,” he had said when he put it on her, like she didn’t already know.
She had put it in the box after the breakup, tucked away with the letters and remnants of things that she didn’t want to touch for a while. Pushed away behind boxes and stacks of old books.
She held it now, felt the smooth sides of the sanded wood, noticed the delicately painted details of the zebra’s black eye, the curve of the bracelet like a winding mountain road. Tried it on and felt the weight of it one last time before setting it on the windowsill above the bed. She’d be able to see it from time to time. Pieces of things that were lost now.
She climbed back into bed, the early morning sky rising with shades of periwinkle and black through the windows. A single thread of sunrise beginning to peek across the room, moving shadows. Her black apron hung over the back of a chair, ready for today’s shift. She thought about last images that might come just before death. The final memories on skin. Warm gravel and damp earth, bloodied pavement and moist night mist.
All of the things, Tina thought as she finally drifted off towards sleep. So many things.
Framed paintings with crooked brushstrokes, the artist distracted by a model’s mouth. Earrings in a crushed velvet box, a child sorting through them like pennies. The wide golden leaves of a sunflower, picked and left on a front porch in apology.
Love notes folded into thirds, buried underground where lightning has already struck. The last of the good china plates, passed down through families.
And there were soft pages of lyrics passed between lovers, and words that felt wet when they slipped off of tongues.
© 2015 Anna Doogan