by Jodi Angel
On Sundays I have the place to myself. My boss, Frank Lane, doesnít come in until one in the afternoon, so I take my time shelving books and rearranging the stacks so that the westerns are in Westerns and true crime stays in True Crime, because no one needs to confuse Larry McMurtry with Jack Olsen, or Iíll be processing refunds and returns all morning on Monday. The used book business is not an exact science, but I like Frank a lot, and I try to keep the store running smoothly on the mornings when he leaves me in charge. Karen, Frank says, I trust you with my livelihood.
I love my Sundays. We have three bottom shelves devoted to Alternative Lifestyles, right below the Horror section because Frank feels theyíre pretty much the same genre anyway, but every Sunday I pull a different lesbian book off the stack and tuck it behind the counter so I can flip through the dialogue until I find the sex scenes.
Today I am reading Desert of the Heart, though I should be sorting through the boxes of fiction Frank brought back from the Bay Area. I am a little bit in love with the women in this book, but I would not say that out loud. I am twenty and I live at home, and I should be dating men to bring home to my parents so they can start creating a financial plan to fund my wedding, but I am fat and old enough to know it.
My father used to tell me I was hefty, and he liked me that way. Big and healthy. A good eater. His little soccer goalie. His ready-made softball catcher. Iíve heard all the synonyms for fat. My sister Sophie is not fat, but there arenít any synonyms for skinny, so she gets to be beautiful and popular and married to a cardiologist, which makes her perfect. She wanted me to be in her wedding, but the dresses she chose for the bridesmaids only came as large as size 14, and when the zipper could not possibly fulfill its obligations across my back, I was made candle-lighter and had to wear something from my closet that fit.
"Whatíre you reading?"
I didnít hear the door open, and I am on the page where the women are finally together, finally about to climb in bed. I slide the book under the edge of the counter and look up. Danny Kowit is standing in front of me with black grease creased into the back of his wrist and the skin across his knuckles torn and pink.
"What happened to your hand?"
"Sometimes carburetors bite." Danny works at an auto body shop downtown. He says he likes the work, the smell of oil and the way the other mechanics turn the music loud, spit on the cement floor and drink on their lunch breaks. Danny used to want to be a veterinarian.
"Youíre here early," I say, and I know that because Dannyís here so early, heíll stay until Frank comes in and tells him to buy something or go home so I can do my work. Now Iíll have to re-shelve Desert of the Heart and spend the entire week thinking about the last page I read, just before their skin came in contact.
"Aunt Kay is coming over. My mom wants me out of the house." Danny takes his glasses off and rubs them across his thigh. "I brought you a sandwich. Tuna." He hands me a white paper bag folded over neatly at the top.
Danny has dark hair that hangs over his ears and a smile that creeps up on his face like itís stalking him. He always wears heavy brown boots and jeans, and Iíve never seen him in a shirt that isnít stained across the middle as if Danny is perpetually leaning under the open hood of a car. Heís been my only real friend since our sophomore year in high school, ever since I found the best place to sit during lunch was behind the athletic equipment shed on the edge of the field. My mom sent me to school with a Weight Watchersí drink every day, and I could not bring myself to pull it out of my backpack in front of other people. After hiking out to the shed one Tuesday, I found Danny hiding there as well.
"What díya think about high school?" he asked.
"I hate it," I said.
"Good," he said. I could not take my drink out of my backpack, and my stomach growled like a dog behind a fence. Danny watched me for a minute. "Donít you have lunch?" he asked.
"No." I said. "Iím not hungry."
"Really?" he said. "I have two sandwiches in my bag. You can have one if you want."
I looked down at my backpack and could barely make out the outline of the Weight Watchersí can in the front pocket. "Okay," I said.
After that, we met at the shed every lunch period, and when rain soaked the ground and ran in sheets off the roof, Danny would take me to the supply room for the shop classes and we would sit among the engine parts with his lunch spread between us. He always made enough for both of us.
"Whenís Frank coming in?" he asks, and he licks the back of his wrist to loosen the grease so he can wipe it onto the front of his shirt. Danny doesnít appreciate Frankís sense of humor, especially when it comes to making jokes about boys who waste their lives fixing peopleís cars until they get some girl pregnant and they end up living out of one of the cars the deadbeat guy is working on. While Frank says this, Danny usually lifts his middle finger and starts scratching the side of his forehead.
Dannyís father went out for cigarettes one night during Dannyís freshman year and never came back. Danny and his mom received a letter from him two days later, no return address on the envelope, explaining how heíd fallen in love with a woman heíd met at a convention and he needed to try this new life for a while. Dannyís mom started smoking two packs a day, waiting for Danny to turn out like his father. Every week she told Danny to move out, and then she begged him not to leave her. When Danny won a certificate for making the honor roll, his mom tore it up and accused him of trying to better himself so he could get away from her. After that, Danny dropped most of his classes, sold his fatherís baseball cards and bought a set of tools.
Frank never mentions anything bad about the fact that I donít go to college, though. He tells me Iím going to be a perfect wife for the right guy. Iím a healthy girl who can keep the pots simmering in the kitchenóthe quickest way to a manís heart is through his stomachóbut I donít ever tell Frank that I canít cook.
"Frank comes in at one on Sundays. You know that," I tell Danny. "Help me sort these boxes and maybe Frank will let me leave early. We can see a movie or something."
I carry the lunch bag to the back room, to the small refrigerator Frank keeps under the time clock. Danny moves behind the counter and follows me through the curtain to the room where swollen boxes of books are stacked. We have a counter with a postage scale and shipping supplies for sending out orders. Sometimes Frankís wife Maria comes in and helps pack boxes. Mostly she just stands and talks to me about her sisterís kids while I do all the work.
"Which boxes?" Danny asks, and I point to the wall where the stacks are piled. "All of them?" I nod my head yes, and Danny reaches up and pulls down the top box.
In Desert of the Heart, the younger woman spends most of her time seducing the older woman, but she doesnít quit until the older woman finally gives in and lets the younger woman into her rented room, lets herself be kissed and undressed beside the bed.
Danny turns around with the box. "What?" he says.
"Nothing," I say, but I can feel myself smiling and I canít stop, even when I bite the inside of my cheek.
"You know, you have the best smile," he tells me.
"Stop," I tell him, and I mean it.
"You have a great smile, honey; you can use it to your advantage." My mother is watching me get dressed and I can feel myself curl my body forward in an attempt to make myself smaller. "Thereís models now, you knowÖ what are they called? Full-figured? Something like that, something nice. You could have a future in that."
I am trying on dresses in my closet for Sophieís wedding. I am still bruised from the dressing room at the bridal boutique when I came out carrying the indigo taffeta dress lying limp as a drunken prom date across my arm and told my mom it didnít fit.
"Donít you have anything bigger?" my mom asked the salesgirl, and all of Sophieís other bridesmaids turned from the mirror to watch my cheeks darken like Iíd been slapped.
The salesgirl put her hands on her size 5 waist and pursed her lips, blowing air upward toward her blonde-streaked bangs. "I really donít think so," she said. "I could call around, but I donít think we can go any bigger. Unless you want to move into a plus size, and then thereís no guarantee youíre going to find a dress to match the others."
"Iím not going to have different dresses, Mother," Sophie said, holding her arms out from her body as two women with pins stuck in their mouths pulled the waist of Sophieís dress in.
"Of course not, dear," my mother said. "Weíll think of something else." She raised one brown pencil eyebrow toward me and turned back toward the women circling my sister. "How many sizes are they taking it in?" she asked.
"Would you ever think about marrying me?" Danny asks. We are stacking the books in rows, by authorís last name, and every now and then one of us goes behind the counter when a customer walks in.
"You? I never really thought about it," I say, laying another book in the R pile. Danny doesnít turn from the half-empty box, so I cannot see his face.
"Why not?" he asks. He looks at the books in his hands, leans toward a stack, pulls back and reads the covers again. I want to take the books from him, but I donít.
"Weíre friends, Danny, notÖ you know." I re-stack the A pile.
"What? Lovers? Is that the word you canít find?" His voice is quiet, but I can feel an edge slip into it, like a broken glass pulled from the sink.
"Weíve never even kissed, Danny."
"Yes, we did. Donít tell me you donít remember."
I do remember, but I also remember the book I slid under the counter when Danny walked in, and I remember all the kisses Iíve read about more than I ever think about the time my parents were gone and Danny spent the night. We watched cable movies, and Danny brought some beer that tasted like warm dishwater, and I had to wash it down with a jar of salsa and a bag of chips my mom thought I wouldnít find. When he put his arm around my shoulders, I let him, I even leaned into him a little, and when he kissed me, I opened my mouth, just like I thought I should do, and tasted tomato in his exhale. He leaned me backward into the stiff arm of the sofa until my neck bent at such a hard angle that all I could see was my stomach rising and falling with my breath, and Danny easing his body against my waist. I closed my eyes and thought about my second grade teacher Miss Sale, about how she used to let me lean my head against her when we sat in a circle on the floor and she read to us in the afternoons. She smelled like powder.
I felt him, for one quick minute I felt something poke against my thigh as he rested his hips into me. I thought of what might come next, his jeans and underwear wadded on the floor and I would see him, even touch him, and he would want me to undress, tooóalready I could feel his hands lifting the bottom of my shirt, sliding across the white skin of my hips that rolled toward the cove of my waist. I pushed him back and turned up the volume on the television, loud.
Later, after I gave him a blanket and told him goodnight, I went to my bedroom and pushed the door shut. I moved into the downstairs room after I graduated. The room was supposed to give me more freedom and privacy. I could still see Danny from the crack of the door, still see him in the wash of light flashing from the television screen in the darkness. I watched him pull his shirt off, then stand and unbutton his jeans. I watched his hands grip the waistband to slide them down, and then I closed my bedroom door and locked it.
"I donít really think one kiss is a reason to marry somebody," I say.
"We understand each other. Weíve known each other for a long time. Thatís a reason to marry somebody." Danny lifts up the box and dumps the rest of the books onto the cement floor. "We could rent an apartmentósomeplace downtown where the music from the bars could come through our windows at nightóand we could have our own lives, you know? Maybe I could work and go to night classes and I could do all the cooking. Or maybe we could just move away." Danny says this last part in a quiet voice and I want him to look at me, but his hair falls forward and I canít see his eyes.
When I was nine and Sophie was twelve, my fatherís company gave each of their senior employees use of a cabin for a week in the summer. When our week came, my mother took time off from the department store she worked at, and we all climbed into the Volvo for the three-hour drive north. My mother brought me a bathing suit home from work, a green suit with white dots, a ruffle around the waist and straps that crossed in the back. The tag on the suit said For the BIG swimmer who likes to make a BIG splash. She brought Sophie a bikini with navy stripes. They were almost out of smalls, Soph, my mother said, holding the suit over the top of Sophieís clothes to size it. I hope this isnít too large. She tucked Sophieís hair behind her ears and kissed her on the forehead.
The afternoon after we arrived, Sophie and I changed into our suits so we could swim in the stream that ran alongside the cabin. Our dad told us there were places where the water was deep enough to swim, but watch out for the current and the rocks with their sharp edges. I wore my suit under my shirt and shorts, and made sure to wear my tennis shoes since I didnít want to scrape my feet. Sophie walked around in nothing but her suit, and refused to put on shoes even when our dad told her to.
We walked beside the creek for a while, looking for a place deep enough to swim. Sophie walked carefully over the rocks and tried to keep her feet in the places where the sand was exposed, while I waded through the middle of the stream until my shoes were soaked and heavy.
The water slowed and widened at a bend and we could tell it was much deeper here, deep enough to swim. Behind us we could hear the constant rush of rapids, but here the water was quiet and dark.
"So start swimming, Karen," Sophie said, spreading her towel on the thin sand.
"Arenít you going to swim?"
"No way. This suit is not for swimming. Iím here to tan." She stretched out on her towel and closed her eyes. I looked up at the sky and saw the heavy twist of branches above us, where the sun fought its way down toward the water. Sophie was in the shade.
I sat my towel on a large rock and slipped off my clothes. I jumped into the water, and Sophie sat up and told me not to splash her. I thought about the tag on my suit and pushed myself toward the far side of the creek with a gentle kick of my feet. The water moved faster than it seemed, all the motion came from movement below the surface, and I let it carry me. Sometimes small trout flashed by in the pool, their silver backs cutting through the current, and I tried to catch them, opened my eyes under water, blinked away the sand until my wet shoes kicked up so much bottom dirt the only thing I could see under the water was the sun kissing off the foolís gold sifting through the motions of my legs.
In the water I was weightless.
"Hey, hey, Karen, howís my livelihood today?" Frank walks into the back room and turns on the light in his office. Frank is in his fifties, short, with big hands and a bigger voice. He is balding, and the hair on the left side of his head is combed across the top to work double-duty for the hair that is no longer there. Sometimes when heís wrestling a box out of his van and his hair falls sideways, I want to tell him I think heíd look better if he just cut it and let nature take over. But I like Frank; he gave me this job when I was seventeen and he gives me a raise every year, just before Christmas.
"Itís gonna be a hot June this year, and Iím thinkiní sidewalk sale. What díya think, Karen? Pull out the big tables from storage, prop the front door open, and sell some books?" Frank says.
"I think itís almost time," I say. I hate the sidewalk sales, hate leaving the door open when the weather is hot. I hate letting the air conditioner spill out into the street. I hate having to explain to the customers who come up to the counter to complain about the heat of the store that my boss wants the front door open for security reasons while the books are left outside.
Frank comes out of his office and almost trips over Danny stacking books on the floor. "Hey, if it isnít the grease monkey. Why donít you just let me hire you over here, Danny? I donít see how you can earn any money when youíre always in my store. You probably donít even have to work. They probably just pay you to keep out of there while they rob all of us people that need our cars to maintain our livelihoods."
Frankís favorite word is livelihood. He never says business or job, but always makes it sound much more important than just a way to earn money.
Frank looks at the stacks of books and then at the last box to sort. "You did all this today?"
"Yeah, Frank. Weíre almost done," I say. I can tell Frank is impressed.
"I went dancing last night with Maria," Frank says. "Iíll tell you both one thing. There is nothing like dancing with the one you love. There is no greater moment in a relationship than when you dance together, Iíll tell you that right now. You younger people have lost an art."
"We dance, Frank. People still dance," I say.
"Iím not talking about what you call dancing. Iím talking about putting your arm around someone and moving her around. You donít even feel the floor under your shoes. Youíre on air. You put your body against hers, feel her smooth cheek against your own, and thirty years of marriage fall off of you. Youíre young again, itís your honeymoon and youíre still in love." Frank pulls his keys from his pocket. "Címon, grease monkey, I need help with some boxes in the van."
Danny wipes his palms across the back of his jeans and follows Frank out of the store. I watch Danny walk, his boots anchoring him to the ground, and I wonder what it would be like to wake up with those boots beside the bed every morning, or if I would be smart enough to wash his shirts and get the grease stains out.
While Frank and Danny are gone, I pull the tuna sandwich from the refrigerator and set it on the package scale: 14 ounces. I want to wrap it in brown paper and run the tape spool across it, but instead I drop it in the garbage can and walk behind the counter.
"This will be the kidsí area," Mrs. Ryan is saying. "You can watch movies, play games, eat chips. Whatever. But I donít want any of you kids coming outside and bothering the adults unless itís an emergency. If any of you act up, youíll have to answer to your father." Six kids look up at her from our living room couches. I am eight and my sisterís bare leg is sweating against mine while Mrs. Ryan talks. My father was promoted and we moved into this bigger house, and now my parents are having a housewarming party because itís July and all the bills are paid, and I heard my dad say thereís still money to buy steaks and booze.
"Doreen," my mother calls from the kitchen, "come and help me get this dip out on the tables." Mrs. Ryan gives us all one last look of warning, then turns on one leather sandal and walks toward the sound of my motherís voice.
Earlier, we watched my dad and Mr. Ryan carry the stereo and speakers out onto the back yard, then run cords through an open window to plug it in. My dad was already following a drink around the house as he set it down and forgot where he left it every time he walked to another room. When he came in and hugged Sophie and me, he smelled like olives. "Who wants to be my helper?" he asked, and Sophie and I jumped up and down and held both our hands up. "I think this is a job for Karen," my dad said, and he winked at me when Sophie walked back to the couch to pout. I carried record albums for my dad, stacked them on top of the speakers, and when his drink ran out, I filled his glass with ice and took it to my mother.
"Tell your father to slow down," my mother told me.
"Mom said to slow down," I said.
"Tell your mother itís a party," my dad said, and he gave me his wink again.
All afternoon the back yard filled with people and the sound of music and laughter leaked through the walls so that we had to keep turning the television louder. Sophie ate so many chips she thought she was going to throw up, so she went to her room, but I stayed awake even when the other kids fell asleep during the third movie.
I went into the room my dad used for keeping papers and paying bills, the room that I would eventually move into, and I moved my dadís desk chair under the window. I could stand on it and move the blinds apart so I could look out on the yard.
My mother was wearing a wrap-around skirt of thin material, and her hair was piled on top of her head so her hoop earrings bounced against her jaw. She was tan from tennis and I thought she was beautiful that afternoon. Outside, my dad and Mr. Ryan were sitting in lawn chairs, drinks in their hands, while in front of them my mother and Mrs. Ryan danced together. My mom was resting her head against Mrs. Ryanís neck, her arms wrapped loosely around Mrs. Ryanís waist, and together they stepped and swayed to the music I could barely hear. My mom looked so soft that I wanted to tap on the window and yell to her. I wanted to run outside and have her hold me like she was holding Mrs. Ryan. I wanted to lean into her and I wanted her to hold me up.
When the song ended, Mr. Ryan and my dad sat their drinks in the grass beside them and clapped their hands. My mom and Mrs. Ryan bowed and laughed, and the music started again.
The next morning my mother yelled at my father while he shook aspirin out of a bottle and filled a glass with water from the sink. All the records were warped and ruined from the sun.
The door opens, and I walk out to hold it for Frank and Danny, but a woman walks in and I smile at her. Iíve seen her in here before, browsing through the shelves. Sometimes when I look up, I see her looking at me, and then I look down again, embarrassed at being caught.
She is tall with short hair, older than me, but probably not by much. She never buys anything, but sometimes she leans against the shelves and reads for a while before she smiles at me and walks out.
Frank and Danny come in with their arms stacked with boxes, and I hear them drop the boxes onto the floor in back. "Watch it, Grease Monkeyóthatís my livelihood," Frank says, and I am sure Danny is scratching the side of his forehead with his middle finger.
"Weíll be right back, Karen," Frank says. "Grease Monkey is going to look at the vanís engine for me. Itís not idling right." Frank slaps Danny on the back as he walks by. "For free, right? Youíre looking at the van for free."
"Sure, Frank," Danny says.
They walk out the door and I remember I left Desert of the Heart under the counter. I donít want Frank to find it after I leave, so I pick it up and walk to the Alternative Lifestyles section. The girl is standing there, staring at the shelves.
I cannot lift my arm, cannot turn around. I can only smell her perfume, shampoo, the sharp scent of paper and wood and dust lining the aisle. "Hi," she says, and she smiles. This time she is so close I can see the way her lips move back from her teeth. I want to tell her she has a great smile, but I donít.
I am swimming again, my body is moving with the current, the rocks catch me and push me away and I cannot feel anything but the rise and fall of the waterline, the heavy brush of sand rubbing my cheeks as I tuck my head and kick my legs over, holding my nose with one hand and reaching for the trout that flash by with my other. I donít even have to open my eyes.
In the books they just ask. They just ask and the woman looks down at her shoes and then she agrees to meet the other woman for drinks and they talk and end up parked beside a lake and kissing with the radio on as the sun pulls itself from the hills the next morning. And in the end, when one woman decides she must leave town, the other woman is so in love with her that she just gives up her life to step onto the train beside the other woman. She says sheíll only ride to the next station, but I know sheíll keep riding beyond that. Someone just has to ask.
I donít remember what they ask, but I open my mouth and before I can close it again I say, "Do you think you would like to go out some time?"
My pulse beats in my head and my heart feels like it is sprinting the length of the street. I can see a small scar across the womanís left cheek and I wonder if I could feel it if I ran my lips across it in the dark.
She looks down at her feet, rubs one sandaled foot into the thin carpet and then raises her head. The silence hangs between us, and I want her to say something and push the silence away. I try to give her my best smile, and then her eyes widen and she looks away.
"Iím sorry," she says, "you must be mistaken." Her lips close around her teeth again and she pulls a book from the shelf by its spine. Stephen King. Horror. K. "Do you know how much this book is?" she asks.
From behind me comes Dannyís voice. I can feel his breath on my neck when he speaks. "Itís marked on the inside of the cover."
"Thanks," she says, and walks toward the front counter where the cash register sits.
My hands are slick, and I can feel a runner of sweat slide like creek water down my back. I remember how Sophie finally yelled at me to stop swimming, and I climbed out with my bathing suit stuck to my body, the leg holes pulled tight. I remember our walk back, the sand rubbing my skin as it dried in the cheap material of my suit. By the time we came out of the woods beside the cabin, the skin between my thighs was scraped raw and red so that I could not swim for the rest of the week and had to hold a cold cloth between my legs all through dinner while my mother pulled the shoulder straps of Sophieís bikini aside and told Sophie she was getting some color.