It was part of the job. Near the end of her shift at the Buy-for-Less, Tina locked down her till, picked up a yellow plastic shopping basket filled with items customers had abandoned before checkout, and went out into the aisles to put them back where they belonged. She took a box of condoms that a teenage boy had left among the tabloids on the magazine stand back to the pharmacy. A pack of sixty watt lightbulbs that had been tossed on a pile of frozen pizzas went back on the shelf Hardware. What were they thinking when they cast these things aside? That sitting in the dark wouldn’t be so bad? That pulling out would have to do? She worked her way through the aisles and put back a bottle of soy sauce, two cans of tuna fish, and a jar of maraschino cherries. The last thing left in the basket was a bag of baby carrots that an old man had handed her at the register and said, I don’t even like these. You take them. She headed to the produce department, wondering why he’d bothered to pick them up in the first place.
When she got to produce, piped in thunder began to rumble over the PA. The lights that the hung above the vegetables throbbed and little sprinklers unleashed a soft mist. No matter how many times she’d seen them, the artificial thunderstorms that rained over the vegetables always amused her.
You sure do like that rain.
She turned, surprised to see her supervisor, Sam, beside her. He was a bald, hard-bellied man, and he had an unnerving ability to move without making much noise. One second he wouldn’t be there, and then he would.
Earlier that week, he’d ambushed her at the courtesy desk and asked her to bring her husband, Brian, over for dinner. He dropped his hand on her shoulder and said, Me and Val will make something. We’ll watch some tv and have wine. You can meet the kid. He traced tiny circles on her shoulder with his thumb and said, It’ll be fun, which somehow made it seem like it wouldn’t.
The storm passed in the produce department. I understand the sprinklers, Tina said, but what’s with the fake thunder and lightning.
Sam told her, It’s for the kids. All that sound and flashing light makes a trip to the grocery store seem a lot more exciting than it really is.
She said that that made sense and told him how her class had taken a field trip to the IGA when she was in elementary school. I liked the way the scanner beeped when it read UPC codes, she said. When I got home, I told my mom I wanted to be a checkout girl when I grew up.
And here you are, Sam said. That’s funny.
Tina smiled and said, Yep, but she was starting to wish she had wanted more.
She was heading back to the register when he asked if they were still on for dinner that night.
We wouldn’t miss it, she said.
The automatic doors slid closed behind her when she left the store. Dark came early that time of year; a low sun left the sky bruised and lit the clouds cotton candy pink. Without her apron and nametag, she felt like she could be just about anyone, but she couldn’t imagine who else she would be. She walked down a row, flanked by taillights and license plates, and headed for Java Jacks, a shitty coffee shop on the opposite end of the lot.
Other than a few people sitting at tables, tapping free wifi and pecking away on their laptops and phones, the only person inside the coffee shop was the barista, a young woman around Tina’s age with a bull ring hanging from her nose and an electric blue streak running through her hair. She leaned against the counter, paging through a magazine.
Tina ordered a café au lait and the barista went to work behind the counter. The magazine she’d been reading was open to an article about New Orleans titled, America’s Most Haunted City. On one page, there was a picture of a mansion glowing in the dusk, surrounded by ancient live oaks, limbs wrapped with resurrection fern and dripping with Spanish moss. On the opposite page was a shot of an old cemetery jammed with crumbling stone tombs that sat above ground. No wonder the city is haunted, Tina thought. The trees look like ghosts and the dead don’t go in the ground.
The barista poured milk into a steel pitcher.
Have you ever been to New Orleans? Tina asked.
I haven’t, the barista said, but I’d like to someday. She sunk the frothing wand into the pitcher of milk and turned a nob.
It’s one of my favorite cities, Tina said.
The steamer hissed.
What was she talking about? The only traveling she’d ever seen was the summer before seventh grade, when her second step-daddy snuck her off to Eureka Springs for the weekend. She hadn’t given much thought to going anywhere else since. She’d certainly never made it to New Orleans.
The barista set the café au lait on the counter, and Tina slipped a single into the tip jar. Before she left, she pointed to the picture of the mansion in the magazine and told the barista, If you ever have the chance, you should go.
When she got back to the apartment, Brian was on the couch in front of the television, using his controller to wander through the rubble of some video game war zone. Judging by the coffee table—cluttered with crumpled hamburger wrappers, stale French fries scattered around shallow pools of ketchup, a freezer bag filled with bubble gum kush, and a glass pipe with a close-to-cashed bowl—she figured he’d been sitting there for the better part of the afternoon. He mashed buttons, and the pop of gunfire and concussive explosions rang through the speakers. Tina picked up the pipe and burned up what was left in the bowl.
Did you see what happened to that guy? he asked, pointing to a fallen soldier on the screen. His head popped off just like R. Budd Dwyer’s.
Who was that? She didn’t know and she didn’t bother asking. Brian was partial to esoteric information like that; it had been one of the things that had first drawn her to him. He would sit in the school parking lot, reading Trivial Pursuit cards in his pickup. One day, she walked up to his window and asked what he was doing. Trying to learn something, he said. He flipped over a card, read the answer, and flung it into a pile of other cards on the floorboard. She stood and watched while he worked his way through the deck. Did you want something? he asked. She fished a few folded twenties from her pocket, handed them over, and said, An eighth of Indica if you’ve got it.
Not long after that, they started spending time together. When the last bell rang, she would come out of the high school and climb into his pickup. They would drive around, winding through neighborhoods, circling the city, not heading anywhere in particular, but enjoying how it felt to be in motion. While they drove, she would ask him to tell her the things that he knew. He’d say the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog contains every letter in the alphabet, the eye of an ostrich is bigger than its brain, the heart works harder than any other muscle. He grazed her arms lightly with his fingertips and told her he knew he loved her.
An explosion lit the screen. Brian set the controller on the coffee table and said, I’m dead.
Tina set down the pipe and told him they needed to get ready for dinner.
All right, he said and picked up the controller. Just let me have one more life.
When she first told him she’d made plans, he said, Why? It wasn’t uncommon for a boss to ask an employee over for dinner, she said. Hadn’t he seen it on tv shows, too? Besides, she told him, Sam wasn’t that bad, and didn’t he want to see how other people lived? Not really, he said, but if you want me to go with you I will.
She stripped off her shirt, bra, and slacks and hung them on the coat rack in the corner of their bedroom. Other than a suitcase full of clothes and a few framed photos, the coat rack was the only thing she’d brought with her when she and Brian got married and moved into the apartment together. Her mother had told her that her real daddy made it in his high school shop class before the auto wreck. She’d seen him only in old photos, toothy and rawboned, dressed in band shirts and blue jeans, and though she sometimes imagined that high school boy building the coat rack—shaping the center rod on the lathe, sanding, and staining—she couldn’t shake the suspicion that the whole thing was just a story her mother had told her to make a man she’d never met seem more real.
When Brian came into the bedroom, she was putting on a dress.
What am I supposed to wear? he asked.
Zip me up, she said, and I’ll help you figure it out.
When they arrived, Sam and Val were getting wet-brained on boxed wine. Come in, Come in, they said and ushered them inside. They traded hugs and handshakes and went to the kitchen where the stemware was waiting. Sam asked, Red or white? and poured their drinks. They all said, Cheers, clinked their glasses, and sipped.
You’re just as pretty as Sam told me you were, Val said, and what a handsome husband, too. Her hair was nearly bleached white, and she wore it in a perm with loose curls. She took a long sip and said, We made lasagna. It just needs some more minutes in the over. There’s no point in just standing here watching it cook. She turned the spigot, topped off her glass, and led them into the living room.
The television was on, and in front of it, a little girl lay belly down on the carpet with a box of crayons and a coloring book open to a picture of Jesus. He smiled as he stood before the cross. A lamb rested at his feet.
That’s Becky, Val said. Say hello, Becky.
The kid rolled onto her back and waved.
Val said, She doesn’t talk too much yet.
Sam said, Thank God.
He and Val sat on the sofa. Brian took an armchair, and Tina perched on the ottoman in front of it.
A block of commercials for car dealerships, anti-cavity toothpaste, and headache medicine ran on the television. Then Alex Trebek appeared on the screen and introduced the categories for double jeopardy. Historic Objects, he said. Novels, Before & After, TV, and Help!
Sam watches this show all the time, Val said, but he isn’t much good at it.
I’m fair, he said.
No, you’re not.
One of the contestants requested Historic Objects for $400. Alex said, Archeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the gold mask of this King of Mycenae in 1876.
Sam said, I bet it’s one of those Egyptians.
Brian said, It’s Agamemnon.
The contestant who rang in echoed Brian, and Alex said, Correct.
Look at that, Val said. You’ve got some competition.
Sam hunched over, elbows on his knees, ready to play. The contestants worked their way down the board. Sam hazarded guesses, but he couldn’t keep up with Brian. Who is Judith Light? he said. What is Don Quixote? Who is Babe Ruth Bader Ginsberg? What is I Can’t Help Myself?
Val laughed and said, It’s a runaway.
As the clues disappeared, the little girl closed her coloring book and boxed her crayons. She walked over to Tina, stood on her toes, and cupped her hands over her ear. She said, This is what a whisper sounds like, then she stood back and nodded her head. Tina didn’t know what she was talking about, but that was what a whisper sounded like. She nodded in agreement, somehow soothed by that simple declaration in a room where all the other words being spoken were coming out in the form of questions.
They played and Sam got desperate, shouting out incomplete or flat-out incorrect answers. Who is the guy who wrote the book about the kid on the raft with that black guy? he said. Who is Julia Ceasar? What is… Awe, shit. I knew that.
Once the contestants had cleared the board, Alex introduced the category for Final Jeopardy. Space Exploration, he said, and the program cut to commercial.
How much would you bet? Sam asked.
Sam finished his glass of wine in a gulp and said, I’d bet it all.
Before the final clue could be revealed, the timer went off in the kitchen. Val looked at Sam and said, The lasagna is done. He said, We’re not.
When the show resumed, Alex revealed the clue. He said, She would have been the first teacher to travel to space, had the Challenger not exploded shortly after its launch in 1986.
Was it before or after the field trip to the IGA? All Tina could remember was that she’d been standing in the auditorium with all of the kids in her elementary school, their eyes trained a television that had been wheeled out so they could watch the launch. They listened to the countdown, the teachers smiling, proud to have one of their own headed into space. The engines fired and the rocket rose. They cheered its ascent, but then the shuttle began to break apart. One of the teachers made her way toward the television and turned it off, but they’d already learned how quickly things could change from one thing to another.
Brian stayed quiet while the music played. Tina figured that he could see that Sam was soused and agitated and didn’t like to lose, even when he was playing a game he wasn’t all that good at, even when there was nothing to win or lose.
The music stopped.
Sam asked, Do you know it?
They drove home, and the moon sat high above them, a waning crescent, thin as a fingernail clipping. They’d just pulled out of the subdivision when Brian said, It could’ve been worse. She knew he was just trying to be kind about having been dragged along, but she couldn’t keep herself from crying. Hey, he asked, what’s wrong?
The dinner had been calm. They complimented the food and discussed the weather and talked about movies they wanted to see but hadn’t had the chance to watch. When they finished eating, Val took the little girl upstairs to bed and Tina offered to clear the table. She collected the dishes and flatware and carried them into the kitchen. She was scraping them clean at the sink when she felt Sam standing beside her. He set down a pair of wine glasses. Then he caged her against the counter with his arms. He pressed his hips firmly against her, and craned his neck like he would kiss her if he thought she would let him. She froze. He stood there for a moment, his breath flicking her cheek, then he pulled away, and said, Don’t worry about the dishes.
She hated that she was crying about it now. God, she thought. She would have to see him at work. She’d go back to running the register and putting back the things that people didn’t know they needed or decided they didn’t want. If Sam said anything about that moment in the kitchen, he’d simply say he’d drank too much.
Brian asked if she was all right, and she nodded and said she was sorry.
Brian said, You didn’t do anything.
She said, I know, and it sounded as soft as the little girl’s whisper, but it felt like a scream trapped in her throat. She hadn’t had to do anything; that was the problem. For all the things he knew, there were things he wouldn’t ever completely understand. She dug her toes into the fading trivial pursuit cards scattered on the floor board and asked Brian why he hadn’t answered the last question.
He said, I wasn’t sure I knew what it was until I heard you say it.
The headlights lit the road ahead of them. Soon they’d be back home, and when they got there, she would shed her dress and hang it on the coat rack that her daddy might not have made. She would shut off the lights, and it would be dark, and in the dark, she would see how the clothes that hung on the coat rack in the corner looked like the Spanish moss that hung from the trees in a haunted city where the dead are laid to rest among the living.
Jonathan Bohr Heinen‘s work has previously appeared in The Florida Review, Word Riot, Arroyo, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere, and has received special mention from the Pushcart Prize anthology. He teaches at the College of Charleston and is the Managing Editor for Crazyhorse.