by Devin Reany
“Aren’t you afraid that he’s going to rape you?”
I stop mid-crouch and stare into the half-empty pallet of raisin bran. Fourteen grams of sugar seems like an awful lot for one serving of what’s supposed to be a healthy cereal. I turn to her and see that she hasn’t broken stride in her re-stocking. She’s not smiling or laughing or even glancing in my direction. I gather an armful of boxes and set them on the shelf.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that, if I were in your shoes, I’d start sleeping with my door locked and I’d definitely start looking for a new roommate. You’re lucky he hasn’t tried anything yet.”
I fiddle with the row until it’s as straight as it’s going to get. There’s not really any point in making it look nice – it’ll be a mess again in about ten minutes – but I realized a few weeks into the job that it was better to pace yourself on the nights when the trucks come in, better to just look busy and kill time any way you can. If you get all the stuff on the shelves before the shift’s over they’ll make you go through the whole store picking up trash and asking the customers if they need anything. And God help you if Mary catches you standing around when you’re on the clock – she saw Frank over in electronics talking with his girlfriend the other day and told him not to come in for the rest of the week. Poor girl’s standing right there with her hand over her eyes while Frank’s pleading his case, trying not to look at the customers that’re staring at ‘em while he’s telling Mary that he won’t be able to make rent this month if he doesn’t work. Mary wasn’t hearing it. I think she just needed to cut hours.
“I don’t think he’s dangerous. I mean, I’ve known him for eight years and been living with him for four – if he was gonna try something he probably woulda done so by now.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. A friend of mine had a cousin that was living with some guy out in Dayton. Two of ‘em were going to Wright State together, some kinda psychology program or something, I dunno. Knew each other their whole lives. Went to pre-school together, for Christ’s sake. One night they get a little drunk – you have a good night now, Tammy.”
“Awright darlin’, you do the same.”
“One night they get a little drunk and the guy starts putting the moves on my friend’s cousin. Doesn’t wanna take no for an answer. Cousin kicks him in the balls, gets the hell outta there and calls the cops. When they come to haul the guy away he tries to tell ‘em that nothing happened, that it was all just a misunderstanding. They’re all the same. It might seem like you know him, but trust me – he’s just waiting for a chance to take advantage of you. There aren’t any good ones. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.”
I guess I should be thankful that we only share this shift. It’s not like I came into this place looking to make friends and if I had she certainly wouldn’t’ve been the first person I chose. It’s ‘cause of her that I can’t sneak over to the Goodwill across the lot when we’re both working – any other shift I can take a long break and head over there and see if they got any new paperbacks in. Got three McCaffreys and a couple Le Guins for just five bucks the other night. First and last time I tried that with her around I came back to the store to find her sitting in the break room with her arms crossed and her eyes just staring right through me. Like she was my mom and she had caught me coming home late. Tells me that I’m stealing from the company and that she’s gonna go tell Mary if I do it again. She’s talking loud enough that everyone in there can’t help but hear her but when I look around they’re all just picking at their food or thumbing through one of the old Car & Drivers that Greg brought in or talking about that lady that put three hundred bucks worth of food in her cart and thought she could just stroll out of the store without anybody noticing. She was still loading her van when the cops showed up. Wasn’t even hurrying. From what I heard she didn’t fight any when they came. Just got in the car without saying a word.
“Are you even listening to me? I swear, trying to have a conversation with you is like pulling teeth sometimes.” “I’m listening. I just think you’re overreacting.”
“Overreacting. Jesus Christ almighty … Sandra!”
“Whatcha need, sweetie?”
“Come over here for a second. Alright, now you tell Sandra what you told me.”
I tell Sandra what I told her.
“Oh my God, are you serious? You gotta find a new roommate, hon. You ain’t safe there. Only a matter of time before he tries something funny.”
“That’s exactly what I said. Exactly what I said. Told me I was overreacting.”
“Overreacting nothin’. Can’t be livin’ with that man. Bible says it ain’t right. Ain’t moral.”
I turn to Sandra. I wonder if she even knows what my name is.
“What do you mean, which book? I just told you which book. The Bible.”
“Don’t bother getting yourself worked up, Sandra. Might as well be talking to a brick wall with this one.”
“Well, you keep at it, sugar. I gotta get back to my department and see if the new girl’s fucked everything up in the ten minutes I’ve been gone. I’ll say a prayer for your friend.”
“Thanks hon. I’ll see you at quittin’ time. Now what do you say? Still think I’m overreacting?”
She rolls her eyes and sighs so loud that that a man on the other side of the aisle raises his eyes off the bottle of syrup he’s studying and shoots us a dirty look. I smile and raise my hand in what I hope is an apologetic gesture. He shakes his head and returns to examining Mrs. Butterworth.
“I’m not doing this for my own health. I worry about you sometimes. From what I hear I’m the only person in the store you even talk to – hell, Tony over in housewares told me that you don’t even take your lunch in the break room when I’m not around, that you just hole up in the training office with one of your books for the whole hour. You know you’re not supposed to be in there.”
“Are you gonna tell Mary about that, too?”
She puts a hand on my arm. I fight down a flinch and turn to her. She’s looking at me with that small-town prettiness in her cyan eyes and her foundationed cheeks and her stark black roots and for once it seems like her smile is a genuine one.
“I care about you, Mark. I honestly do. So when you tell me that you’re living with a faggot…well, I just want you to be careful, that’s all. And that’s the last I’ll say on the subject.”
She gets the pallet up on the jack and puts a hand on her waist.
“C’mon. We got eight more of these to get through.”
I can always tell when he’s coming ‘cause his engine makes a certain kind of noise that sets it apart from all the other cars buzzing about the parking lot, a kind of throaty, struggling sound that he says probably has something to do with the overheating problem the car’s been having. Can’t even take it on the highway anymore, engine just goes nuclear the second you get it up to sixty-five. I close my book and step away from the building, turning back and smiling and raising my hand when one of the guys smoking on the bench wishes me a good night. I think he works in hardware. He pulls up to the curb and I get in.
He waits a moment to let an elderly couple and a woman with a baby strapped to her back pass through the crosswalk before he lets off the brake and drives out of the lot. I exhale and crack my knuckles and recline my seat a couple inches as he hangs an elbow out the window, using one hand to guide his rust-addled sedan through the dark country roads that lead to our apartment.
“Katie and I had an interesting conversation today.”
“I told her that I had a gay roommate. First thing she does is ask me if I’m afraid that you’re going to rape me.”
“We’ve only been living together for, what, three years now?”
“Four years. You’d think I woulda made my move by now.”
“Haha, yeah, that’s what I said.”
“’Course, I could just be lulling you into a false sense of security. If you wake up one morning with your head all foggy and your underwear on backwards I guess you’ll know who to question first.”
We share a laugh as the car comes to a halt at the only stoplight between the store and the apartment. In the amber haze of the streetlamp I can see that the tangerine Stingray that had been sitting on the lawn on the side of the intersection isn’t there anymore. It was gorgeous, but still, I’m surprised that it got sold. I don’t know anybody that’s got six grand to blow on something like that.
“I think I’m gonna go back to school.”
He looks at me until the light turns green.
He nods and taps his finger against the steering wheel.
“Well, you’re probably too late to apply for the fall, but, if you want, I can bring home some information about what you need to do to if you wanna start in the spring.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that.”
A few seconds pass before he turns on and starts fiddling with the radio. He finds a song he likes and I can’t help but wince as he turns it up loud enough to be heard over the death of his engine. I lean back in my seat and close my eyes. Home isn’t that far away.