GIVETHEREADERSWHATTHEYWANT!
One writer's experiment to tackle any subject his friends come up with.
7/25/11-JENNIFER BURCHETT

(Note from Cole: Since this story evolved to follow what Jennifer had written, I decided to keep her full submission as the first chapter. My second chapter comes about a third of the way down the page, after the break.)

 


 

I overheard something on the loud speaker at Kroger one day, several times, and this jumped into my imagination. I’ve often wonder what happened before this — or what happened after…

 

Register Five
by Jennifer Burchett

Unsalted butter.

With a sigh, Lissa turned her shopping cart around. Struggling against a thick current of slow moving shoppers, she found her way back to the butter and made the switch. She paused for a moment, staring at the box of lightly salted butter in her hand. Lissa tried to picture the quickly scrawled list she’d left on the kitchen counter, but the box of butter would neither transfigure into the list, nor divulge any secrets. Dropping the butter into the cart, she went over tomorrow’s Thanksgiving menu, dish by dish, trying to remember why she’d come to the store.

Sour cream for the dip. Lemons for the iced tea. Diet coke for my mother-in-law…

The thought of her in-laws pushed her into gear. They would be arriving in a couple of hours and wouldn’t take too kindly to being locked out. She started toward the soda aisle, but her cart locked up. It was turning out to be one of those days. A couple of swivels and a vigorous push corrected the rogue wheel, and finally she was off. Lissa wasn’t even aware that Christmas music had been playing in the background until it crackled, and then suddenly stopped.

“Would Kenneth Blackstone please meet his daughter at register five?”

The announcement repeated, and after another crackle and a couple of squeaks, “Here Comes Santa Claus” resumed. Two energetic boys tore out of of the soda aisle, narrowly avoiding a collision with both Lissa and her cart. She forced a sympathetic smile of forgiveness to their embarrassed mother, who was struggling to catch up with them. Catch up to them she did, though abandoning her cart in the process, and Lissa watched as she held the boys’ heads close and whispered something to them. It was clearly effective; the boys retrieved the cart for their mother and stood right beside it, obviously working hard to contain their energy.

After wandering from aisle to aisle, remembering a few random items, Lissa finally headed toward the produce section, always her last stop. She had given up remembering what she actually needed; she wound her away among the fruits and vegetables, letting them remind her. She heard a crackle.

“Attention please. Would Mr. Kenneth Blackstone report to register five? Mr. Kenneth Blackstone, please meet your daughter at register five.”

It seemed to Lissa that a long time had passed between announcements. Perhaps Mr. Blackstone, whoever he was, had ventured into the path of the two boys whose good behavior had inevitably expired. She had grabbed three lemons, a couple of onions just in case, bananas for breakfast cereal, and some strawberries, on sale, which she could serve with the chess pie. Lissa peeked at her phone to check the time; her in-laws were probably a half an hour away. She headed for the check-out.

She joined the crowd in the check-out lottery. It was always a gamble; one which Lissa rarely won. She would find a line that looked a bit shorter, only to find that that register had the slowest clerk in the store. Quite often, or so it seemed to Lissa, her line would be moving along nicely, until the person right in front of her had a dozen coupons and an item needing a price check. This would frazzle the clerk into making an error, which would require turning on the dreaded orange light, summoning a manager.

Lissa chose a line which, though not strictly the shortest, seemed to be moving quickly. Many of the carts in this line were sparse, like Lissa’s. Her eyes roamed around the crowded store. So much effort, so much stress went into this one meal. It was a little ridiculous. Every year she vowed to keep it simple next time, and yet here she was again. Her line was moving, though; this was good. This cashier, Wilma, was quick. Her years of experience were evident to Lissa as she watched her in action. She scanned items with a graceful, fluid rhythm. Lissa watched as Wilma stacked loose potatoes on the scale, magically keeping them from rolling away with the tap of a finger. The younger cashiers on either side of Wilma counted on her to answer all their PLU questions, and to tell them the difference between jicama and celery root, or butternut squash and acorn squash.

Lissa’s eyes landed on a young girl standing behind Wilma. She looked about seven or eight. Lissa thought she looked very out of place. Her long brown hair needed washing, but it was perfectly parted down the middle and combed neatly. She was wearing a powder blue winter coat which was much too large, and much heavier than was needed for this unseasonably warm November. The coat was unzipped and revealed a faded gray sweatshirt, turned inside out, and a pair of pink leggings which only came to the middle of her calf. She was wearing bright pink Converse All-Stars, which looked brand new. Lissa tried to look away, but she couldn’t. The little girl’s chin was almost touching her chest; her eyes were fixed on the pink All-Stars. The girl had her hair tucked behind her ears and Lissa could see her delicate jawline and pointed chin, her olive skin stretched tightly over her thin face. Lissa was struck by her fragile beauty.

Wilma was waiting for a check to feed into her register and she flicked her manager light on. Lissa looked up – register five. A sinking realization spread through her.

This little girl is waiting for her father. And he’s not coming.

Wilma’s phone beeped. She picked it up. “Hi Paul. Nope. Still Here. Can somebody take her to the break room? I’ve got a line 10 deep.” A pause, and then, “Okay, but hurry. And I still need those quarters.”

The little girl finally looked up from her sneakers. Lissa looked into her eyes. They were dark and deep set. Lissa was surprised at their expression. They didn’t look scared, or even sad. They were hollow. Resigned.

All the emotion that was absent in the little girl’s face coursed through Lissa. Frantically she fought back tears, and racked her brain for something she could do. Should she offer to help? Where was her mother? Lissa tried desperately to make eye-contact with the girl, but she was looking down at her sneakers again.

A heavy-set man with a manager’s badge came over to Wilma’s register. He bent down to talk to the little girl in a voice overflowing with false cheer.

“I bet you’re Natalie. Would you like to come with me and have a snack?”

He offered his hand. She crossed her arms in front of her, and stepped back to look him over. Feeling awkward, he stood up and retracted his hand. The little girl finally said, “Okay.”

As Lissa watched her follow the manager to the back of the store, she heard him say, “I’ll bet you like chocolate pudding!” She followed silently, still looking at her sneakers.

Wilma began scanning Lissa’s groceries.

“What’s going to happen?” Lissa asked her.

“I sure don’t know. I reckon that’s about the saddest thing I ever saw.”

“Have you ever seen her before?”

“No, they ain’t from around here. She says she’s from Ohio. I’m pretty sure her daddy brought her here to give her up. Any coupons?”

“Oh. No.”

Wilma didn’t miss a beat. Lissa dug through her purse and found her debit card. She realized her hand was shaking; she had to enter her pin a second time.

“Thank you, and have a happy Thanksgiving.”

Lissa numbly grabbed her bags, and said, “Yes, you too.”

 

*****

 

Chapter Two
by Cole Bennett

 

Paul strode down aisle four, flicking the tips of his fingers, darting his eyes between frozen vegetables and ice cream. The door for the frozen waffles was fogged up, not sealing again. Paul couldn’t understand why the technicians just couldn’t seem to fix it.

He snapped his attention away from the comfortable trivia of the store’s problems and set his eyes on the the “Employees Only” door between the restrooms. A bead of sweat tickled between his shoulder blades. There had been no mention of anything like this in his training. Somebody shoplifts, you take the description, call the cops, review the tapes. Somebody gets beligerent, you call security – they did have security – then the cops. Somebody leaves a kid – he glanced back at the girl.

Natalie. She had told Wilma her name was Natalie. That, and nothing else.

Paul slowed his pace and allowed the girl to catch up.

By offering a handshake and food, he had exhausted his repertoire of kid-friendly overtures. “Those are some cool shoes,” he said brightly.

Natalie looked down again and continued to shuffle behind him.

Stupid, Paul thought. You got her looking at her shoes again. They’re probably new because they’re the last thing her dad bought her before bringing her here.

Paul looked at his own shoes. Sensible, comfortable, nondescript, black – the work tennis shoe that was standard for all the employees, probably for all supermarket workers everywere. They were given a fifty dollar yearly stipend to purchase them, but Paul had already owned a pair. It had been a kind of wakeup call: This is how you dress already – in as much as you might be said to have a calling, store manager may as well be it.

Paul pushed the door wide and stood clear, allowing Natalie to enter first. As she shouldered uneasily past him, he noticed her hair, combed straight but flat with oil. It struck him that the thin veneer of neatness had been enough to get her into the store without raising too many eyebrows.

Who does that? Paul thought. Who lets it happen? Whose priorities are so skewed that they can hardly be bothered to feed their kid, much less clean them, educate them? Then he stopped himself. There was no knowing what Natalie’s family was like. His mental image shifted to a man on a bus a mile away, cursing himself for his weakness, weeping over his inability to provide, praying he had picked the right store. Did that make sense? What are the channels you go through in giving up a child? Maybe they had lived “off the grid”. Maybe her father couldn’t afford to get into any public records.

In any case, it now fell to Paul to figure out. They entered the break room, and Natalie slid herself into one of the folding chairs. She leaned forward and rested her chin on the table in front of her.

Paul stopped for a moment at the door. Kids, he thought. They’re too small. Like the world is going to either ignore them or swallow them up.

Natalie’s eyes probed the room. Paul winced, thinking of the off-color cartoons posted on the bulletin board, cartoons he had warned Stephen and Kirk about several times. Thought it was a struggle, Paul tried to keep the decorum in the employee areas above that of a dorm room.

He looked back at Natalie, and realized she was staring at him, eyebrows raised. The jolt to Paul’s memory was accompanied by a little hop, and he scuttled to the fridge. He opened the door and spotted his box of pudding tubes. The employees often ribbed him about his penchant for the treats – the stated jab being that it was a kids’ desert, and the unstated being that he should lay off dessert of any kind. But decades of dealing with barbs such as these had equipped him with superb defenses. The chocolate provided him a boost of energy during the early afternoon, and the handy packaging meant that he could eat the snack quickly and neatly, even while working. Paul removed one of the tubes from its colorful cardboard box.

Then he remained within the cool confines of the fridge for a moment, his eyes down, his face shielded from view by the door. Call the cops. That’s what you do. When you don’t know what to do, you call the cops. Even if it’s not a crime – which this probably was. Then his thoughts cleared a fraction, and the words “Social Services” came to him. Oh, infinitely worse. Cops would come, wouldn’t have to understand, would take charge and make things happen. A social worker – he pictured a weepy matron in ill-fitting clothes, her too-comforting manner making the scene unbearable.

Paul took a sharp breath of the chilled air and grabbed a pudding for himself.

He sat down across from Natalie at the small round table. “Here ya go,” he said, extending a tube to Natalie. She took it without hesitation.

“They’re my favorite, too,” he remarked, noting her appreciation for the snack. He opened his and swallowed its contents with three quick gulps. Natalie’s eyes widened again, and Paul smiled sheepishly. She quickly finished her own, then slumped back with her hands folded in her lap, seeming to work at not staring at anything in particular, at not knowing that her own presence was the most notable thing about the room.

Paul brightened and rubbed his hands together. “How about another?” He turned his head to look at her indirectly through squinting eyes, hoping the gesture came off as cutely conspiratorial.

Natalie lifted her chin and chewed on her lip. “Sure,” she murmured. It was a response, an acceptance – an opening. Paul bounced up from his chair and opened the refrigerator again. He pulled another two pudding tubes from within and noticed his cartons of grape juice.

“You want a juice box?” he asked, looking over his shoulder.

Natalie looked at him and gave a tentative nod.

Paul returned to the table and divided up the food. “All I have is grape, hope that’s okay.”

Receiving no answer, Paul opened his second helping of pudding. He made an effort this time to not finish before Natalie. He noticed that she continued to eat with the same focus as before, and felt certain she would probably eat or drink anything set in front of her.

Paul thought of his grandparents. In his youth, they had often scolded him about eating. “You don’t know what it’s like to not have enough to eat. Hopefully you never will.” These arcane comments had been filled out later by his parents, when he had asked them why Papa Don had eaten the restaurant’s sandwich after mistakenly covering it with tobasco instead of ketchup. Paul had sat across from his grandfather and watched him finish the entire meal in obvious misery, sweating and teary-eyed. “Some things people go through change them in ways we can’t understand,” his father had said.

Even though his parents had tried to keep from marking Paul with this Depression-era code, he had spent sufficient afternoons with Nana that – even now – leaving a plate with food on it felt wrong. He shifted in the folding metal chair, and its familiar creaks now sounded like thunderclaps in the hollow room. Looking up from his reverie, he found Natalie staring at him again. He glanced around for another distraction, trying to avoid the telephone that hung near the door, its cord like a noose.

He knew he was eventually going to have to call Social Services. He knew he was not going to be able to sleep tonight. He wondered whether Natalie would, whether her new environment would be more of a comfort to her, or less, than whatever she had endured up to this point. And he did not know what to hope for.

Paul risked another direct look at Natalie. Over the past ten minutes, the girl’s small brown eyes had gone from reticent to cautiously beseeching. He realized he was drumming his fingers on the Formica tabletop and moved his hands into his lap. He was still sweating, although he’d been told repeatedly by his coworkers that he kept the breakroom too cold. His eyes fell on the fridge again.

“Hey, we’ve got more than pudding and juice. You want a sandwich? Chips?”

Natalie nodded, swallowing as she did so. Paul stepped to the fridge, rifled through its contents and removed a brown bag marked “Stephen’s sustenance. Back off!” He dropped the bag’s contents onto the counter by the fridge and stuffed the bag into the plastic bin below the sink. Stephen usually ate more healthy food than Paul. Natalie could use a good turkey and swiss sandwich, he thought, and he wasn’t disappointed. The sandwich was there, along with a container of carrots and a bag of veggie chips. Paul transferred them from the counter to the table, and Natalie looked askance at the offering.

“Go ahead, dig in,” Paul said, a little too loudly. This proved to be all the invitation Natalie needed.

She was still attacking the sandwich when Stephen walked into the break room, nodded curtly to Paul, and went to the fridge. Paul’s eyes widened and began darting between the fridge and table. Stephen began shuffling the fridge’s contents, muttering. Finally he pulled his head from the fridge, and his eyes landed on the table.

“Paul, what the f-”

“Stephen!” Paul sprung from his chair, skidding it backwards, but seemed unable to approach his employee or leave the circle he’d established with Natalie. “I’d, uh, like you to meet Natalie! Natalie is taking a surprise tour of the store, and she got a little hungry while I was showing her the break room.”

Stephen glanced at Natalie during this description, but his eyebrows were pushing ever harder against each other as his stare bore into Paul. The pause afterward was accompanied only by the store’s faint muzak and the breathing that came from Paul’s open smile.

Finally Stephen broke. “You do know you have a store full of food here, right? That you manage.”

Paul gave a quick, timid chuckle. “Yes, that’s right. I was showing Natalie around,” he answered. “Listen, could you do me a favor and check in with Wilma?” he asked, dragging out the name. “She, uh, might need a bagger.”

Stephen’s eyebrows had unknotted a little. He was obviously not committed to forgiving Paul his infraction, but realized unusual circumstances were in effect.

“Wilma. Right.” He strode out of the break room, his mouth still open to frame unallowed questions.

Paul resumed his seat at the table across from Natalie, keeping his lips in the shape of a smile. He couldn’t imagine himself managing this more poorly. Natalie looked keenly at him now, her eyebrows an echo of Stephen’s. Paul rubbed absently at his shoulder.

Natalie removed her hand from the bag of veggie chips. Her chin was lowered, and she looked up at Paul from beneath her brow. Then, steadily, she said, “This is Stephen’s lunch, isn’t it?”

Paul took a quick breath, affecting an alert pose, ready to answer. Then he deflated, dropping an elbow to the table and rubbing his eyes. “Yes. Yes it is.” He lifted his face again, setting his eyebrows comically high. His tone now seemed indifferent. “I – don’t know why I gave you Stephen’s lunch, the biggest jerk in the store, but I did. There it is.”

Natalie continued looking at Paul, and he realized that her stone-set resignation was beginning to show signs of mirth. Her forehead, still furrowed, lifted slightly, and the consternation there seemed to give way to a conscious sharing and appreciation for the confusion of the scene. Her lips, still pinched, began to curl, first one side, then the other. Paul was transfixed as he watched this sophisticated levity grow across her features, until it was obvious that she found it highly enjoyable, hilarious even, that she was eating the frustrated Stephen’s personal meal.

“He should go to the grocery,” she said, a wide smile around her last half-chewed bite of sandwich, shoving her hand back into the bag of chips.

Paul smiled broadly himself, and laughed that one-note exhaust that makes room for all the other conflicting emotions to settle in and stake their claim on unguarded territory. “Yeah, I think there’s one nearby,” he somehow managed without choking.

Natalie tucked into the remainder of the sandwich, seeming to lose her gravity well of self-consciousness. Paul risked one more honest look at the girl. Then, clearing his throat and muttering a brief excusal, he rose from his chair and made his way to the phone.

 

Copyright Cole Bennett, all rights reserved.

 

 

12 Comments to “7/25/11-JENNIFER BURCHETT”

  1. Cole Bennett says:

    I’m interested in seeing what the muses tell me. Hopefully it improves beyond “you’re screwed”.

  2. Cole Bennett says:

    Well, that was a tough assignment! I decided I wouldn’t try to “answer” any big questions, Jennifer, as I didn’t want to steal the tension from the story with a clean ending. Once I started looking into Paul’s character, things got pretty interesting. I’m curious as to what potential may have occurred to you regarding his weight. The grandparents’ story is a recollection from a friend. It came to mind as I was writing about Paul’s eating habits and quickly fit into place.

    Thanks for the rich material, Jennifer!

  3. Love, love it! I love how you can change your writing voice to suit the story starters — I’ve really been enjoying your project. And I loved meeting Paul. I wish you could find a third writer to write chapter 3 from a third point of view. In fact, maybe your next project could be starting traveling stories…

    And now I want pudding.

    • Cole Bennett says:

      Thanks a lot, Jennifer! I think your starter had me on the ropes! ;) I’m glad you liked the end result.

      I think the travelling stories idea is great! Or maybe we could just swap back and forth? I return your gauntlet, madam!

  4. You’re on! I won’t submit chapter 3 to you until you’ve finished your 50 starters. Not waiting just wouldn’t seem fair:)

  5. Adam Gillett says:

    Agreed, a good use of the telephone game here without overreaching. Also, is it wrong that I see the story acted out by Pixar caricatures? Maybe it’s just my way of bringing some levity to the subject.

    • Cole Bennett says:

      Actually Adam, this is the script for Toy Story IV. They just keep getting sadder.

      • Adam Gillett says:

        I really wish they would have followed the Die Hard subtitles. Toy Story II: Toys Sadder and Toy Story III: Toys Sad with a Vengeance. That would make the future Toy Story IV: Live Free or Die Sad. The posters would be awesome.

  6. Joe says:

    Kept me interested; I liked the two perspectives.

    How did they know the father’s whole name if the girl gave them only her first name? And the girl’s sophisticated humor at the end–as if she were able to size Stephen up and joke with Paul about him—not sure I believe that since she’s been traumatized, more or less, up to then.

    I like the pace and the hints of back story. I’m glad you didn’t tidy it up, but I feel the need for something more. I liked the color throughout.

    This is real late.

    • Cole Bennett says:

      Thanks Joe. You’ll have to ask Jennifer about the dad’s name. :) But you’re onto something with your observation about her humor. I may have been pushing too hard for some resolution at the end. A part of me thinks she has been through a lot already, and has developed some defenses. But that may not be paying respect to the weight of her plight as it was set up originally.

      I felt like I may have been getting wordy or esoteric at the end in describing their emotions, such as “laughed that one-note exhaust that makes room for all the other conflicting emotions to settle in and stake their claim on unguarded territory.” I really liked those observations, but thought they might be a change in tone from the rest of the story. I’d like to explore that side more. I’m reading _The Sparrow_ at the moment, a sci-fi novel by Mary Doria Russell. She has a talent for expressing her characters’ mental states effectively – aptly and succinctly. It makes for an invaluable addition to her writing.

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